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Overview and types of seizures

A seizure is a sudden uncontrollable electrical disturbance in the brain which can cause changes in behavior, feelings, movement, and levels of consciousness. If you have recurrent seizures you have epilepsy.

There are varying types of seizures which can range in severity, the types vary by how and where they start in the brain. Most seizures range from 30 seconds to 2 minutes in length. If a seizure goes longer than 5 minutes it is considered a medical emergency. They can happen following a stroke, an infection such as meningitis, or a closed head injury. Most times a seizure’s cause is unknown.

Many seizure disorders are easily controllable with medication though the management of seizures can still significantly impact your daily life. You can work with your physician to balance medication side effects and seizure control.

There are several kinds of seizures. Focal seizures are the result of abnormal electrical activity in an area of your brain. Focal seizures may occur with or without consciousness loss. A focal seizure with impaired awareness will involve a loss of awareness, you may not respond normally to your environment, may perform repetitive motions, or stare into space. Focal seizures without loss of consciousness can alter emotions, change the way things feel, look, sound, or taste, you may experience involuntary jerking of a body part and spontaneous sensory symptoms such as flashing lights, dizziness, tingling.

Generalized seizures are seizures that look to involve all areas of the brain. Different kinds of generalized seizures include:

  • Absence seizures – often occur in children, they are characterized by subtle body movements (eye blinking or lip smacking) and staring into space, they can cause a brief loss of awareness.
  • Tonic seizures – cause muscle stiffening, they usually affect muscles in the legs, arms, and back and may cause you to fall.
  • Atonic seizures – also called droip seizures, they cause a loss of muscle control which can cause you to fall or collapse suddenly.
  • Clonic seizures – clonic seizures are characterized with rhythmic or repeated, jerking muscle movements.
  • Myoclonic seizures – usually appear as brief sudden arm or leg twitches.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures – the most dramatic type of seizure found in epileptics. Cause an abrupt loss of consciousness, body shaking and stiffening, loss of bladder control or biting your tongue.

Signs and symptoms

Seizure symptoms can range from mild to severe and depending on the type of seizure they can vary. Seizure symptoms will normally include: a staring spell, cognitive or emotional symptoms (fear, déjà u, or anxiety), temporary confusion, uncontrollable jerking of the limbs.

Seizures are most commonly caused by epilepsy though not everyone who has a seizure is epileptic. Seizures can also happen due to: lack of sleep, high fever, head trauma, alcohol abuse, brain tumor, stroke, recreational drugs, and low blood sodium.


After having a seizure your doctor will go through your symptoms and medical history, they may order tests to figure out the cause of your seizure and evaluate how likely you are to have another one.

The tests may include: blood tests, neurological exam, lumbar puncture, positron emission tomography, MRI, CT scan, or electroencephalogram among others.

Having one seizure does not necessarily mean you’ll have another one, and since seizures can be isolated incidents your doctor may decide to hold off on starting treatment until you’ve had multiple seizures.

Seizure treatments often involve anti-seizure medication. Many options exist for anti-seizure medications, the goal of treatment is to find the medicine that is most effective and has the fewest side effects, you may be prescribed more than one medication.

If anti-seizure medications don’t work for you there are other treatment options including: vagus nerve stimulation, deep brain stimulation, surgery, dietary therapy, and responsive neurostimulation.

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