Epilepsy is a disorder in which you have recurring seizures. Normally, nerve
cells in the brain transmit electrical and chemical signals to other nerve
cells, glands, and muscles. Seizures happen when too many of these nerve cells,
or neurons, fire electrical signals at the same time at a much faster rate than
they normally would. Usually, a seizure lasts a few seconds to several minutes.
In some cases, they can last longer.
Not all seizures occur due to epilepsy. According to the Mayo
Clinic, a person would usually have to have at least two unprovoked seizures
for their doctor to diagnose them with epilepsy. An unprovoked seizure is one
that happens without a clear cause.
Signs of a seizure can be subtle or dramatic. The affected person could:
- simply stare at nothing for a few seconds
- lose consciousness
- exhibit strange behavior, such as saying nonsense
- stiffen, shake, or have violent, jerking movements
Although they can vary widely, specific symptoms are often associated with
specific kinds of seizures. An episode can start out as a simpler form of
seizure, but it can become another type of seizure with more widespread or
The type of seizure depends on which part and how much of the brain is affected.
The two main categories of epileptic seizures that exist are partial and
generalized. Multiple types of seizures are in each category.
Also called a focal or local seizure, partial seizures
result from abnormal activity in one part of the brain. The two kinds of
partial seizures are simple partial seizures and complex partial seizures.
Simple partial seizures
People don’t usually lose consciousness with simple partial seizures, but
other symptoms depend on what the malfunctioning part of the brain controls. These
seizures usually last less than 2 minutes.
The symptoms may include:
- twitching or stiffening of individual body
parts, such as an arm or leg
- a sudden change in emotions for no apparent
- difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- feelings of deja vu, or repeating an experience
- unpleasant sensations, such as a rising feeling
in the stomach, changes in heart rate, or goose bumps
- hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling things
that aren’t there, or sensory hallucinations, such as flashing lights, tingling
sensations, or thinking sounds are muffled when they’re clear
Complex partial seizures
The symptoms of complex partial seizures depend on which part of the brain
the seizures affect. These seizures affect a larger region of the brain than
simple partial seizures. These seizures cause a change in consciousness or
awareness, which can include a loss of consciousness. These seizures usually
last about 1 to 2 minutes.
The signs and symptoms of complex partial seizures may include:
- an aura, or an unusual sensation that warns of
- staring off at nothing
- performing odd, meaningless behaviors that often
repeat, or automatisms, which can include fumbling with clothes, walking in
circles, and making chewing motions
- word repetition, screaming, laughing, or crying,
which are less common
After the seizure, the person may be disoriented or not remember what
happened immediately before or after the seizure.
A person may start having a simple partial seizure that develops into a
complex partial seizure. It may then develop into a generalized seizure.
seizures seem to involve all parts of the brain. Six kinds of generalized
seizures exist. They include the following:
seizures are named for the way they affect muscle tone. These seizures cause
muscles to stiffen. They most often affect muscles in the back, arms, and legs
but don’t usually cause a loss of consciousness. Most often, tonic seizures
occur during sleep and last less than 20 seconds. If a person is standing when
they have a tonic seizure, they’ll likely fall.
seizures are rare and involve the rapid contraction and relaxation of muscles.
This leads to a rhythmic, jerking movement, most often in the neck, face, or
arms. This movement cannot be stopped by holding down the affected body parts.
These aren’t the same as tonic-clonic seizures, which are more common.
Tonic-clonic seizures begin with muscle stiffening, which happens in tonic seizures,
that’s followed by jerking movements, which happens in clonic seizures.
This type is also known as the grand mal seizure, from the French term for
“great illness.” It’s this type of seizure that most people envision when they
think of seizures. These seizures usually last 1 to 3 minutes. A tonic-clonic
seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes is a medical emergency.
The initial warning sign of a tonic-clonic seizure may be a grunt or other sound
due to muscles stiffening and forcing out air. The first phase is the tonic
phase. In this phase, the person will lose consciousness and fall to the floor
if they’re standing. Their body will then begin to convulse or move violently.
This is known as the clonic phase. During the seizure, the twitching will
appear rhythmic, as with clonic seizures.
During tonic-clonic seizures, the following may occur:
- A person may bite their own tongue, resulting in
bleeding from the mouth.
- They may be unable to control secretions,
leading to increased salivation, or foaming at the mouth.
- a loss of bowel control or bladder function
- They may become injured from the convulsions or from
their body striking objects during the seizure.
- They may also turn slightly blue.
A person who’s had a tonic-clonic seizure is often sore and tired afterward
and has little or no memory of the experience.
The grand mal seizure can occur due to a more limited type of seizure, such
as partial seizure, that’s worsening. This is called a secondary generalized
seizure. The electrical misfire starts in a specific area of
the brain, but the malfunction moves into larger areas of the brain. This can
happen swiftly or slowly.
Also known as astatic seizures or drop attacks, these seizures involve a
brief loss of consciousness. These are called “atonic” because they involve a
loss of muscle tone and, therefore, a loss of muscle strength. These seizures
usually last less than 15 seconds.
A person experiencing an atonic seizure while sitting may only nod their
head or slump over. If standing, they’ll fall to the ground. If their body is
stiff when they fall, it’s likely a tonic seizure rather than an atonic seizure.
Once an atonic seizure is over, the person is usually unaware of what happened.
People who have atonic seizures may choose to wear a helmet, as these seizures
often result in injury.
These seizures usually feature rapid jerking of specific portions of the
body. They can feel like jumps inside the body and usually affect the arms,
legs, and upper body. People without epilepsy can feel these types of jerks or
twitches, especially when falling asleep or when waking in the morning. Hiccups
are another example of what myoclonic seizures feel like. In people with
epilepsy, these seizures often cause body parts on both sides of the body to
move at the same time. These seizures usually last only a couple seconds and
don’t cause a loss of consciousness.
Myoclonic seizures may be part of several different epilepsy syndromes,
- juvenile myoclonic epilepsy
- Lennox-Gastaut syndrome
- progressive myoclonic epilepsy
Also known as petit mal seizures, absence seizures occur more often in
children. They usually include a brief loss of awareness in which the person
stops what they’re doing, stares off into space, and becomes unresponsive. This
can be confused with daydreaming.
If a child has complex absence seizures, they’ll also make some kind of
muscle movements. These can include rapid blinking, chewing, or hand movements.
Complex absence seizures can last up to 20 seconds. Absence seizures without
muscle movement, called simple absence seizures, usually last less than 10
Although they only last seconds, absence seizure can happen numerous times
in one day. The possibility of absence seizures should be considered in kids
who seem to space out or who have difficulty paying attention.