What is a Seizure? Symptoms, Types, and Causes

Understanding the Many Different Types of Seizures

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A seizure is a brief surge of abnormal electrical activity in the brain which disrupts the electrical communication between neurons. Seizures may affect only part of the brain (called a partial seizure) or may occur all over (called a generalized seizure). Symptoms may last from a few seconds to several minutes. 

Some seizures can be quite severe and lead to injury, while others are mild and less noticeable to others.

No matter the severity, it is important to seek medical treatment to get to the root of the underlying medical condition that may be behind the seizure.

Symptoms Associated with Seizures

The symptoms of a severe seizure are often widely recognized. Some seizures may occur right after the presence of warning signs such as:

  • Sudden feelings of fear or anxiousness
  • Nausea or stomach upset
  • Blurry vision
  • Dizziness or headache

Right after the above symptoms take place, the onset of a seizure in progress includes the following symptoms:

  • Blacking out
  • Sudden, rapid eye movements or a blank stare
  • Loss of bodily control and uncontrollable muscle spasms
  • Violent shaking
  • Falling to the ground
  • Frothing or drooling at the mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Clenching of the teeth
  • Grunting or making other unusual noises
  • A strange taste in the mouth
  • Loss of bladder control or bowel function
  • A feeling of confusion after the seizure

Unfortunately extremely long seizures can lead to a coma or even death.

It should be noted that symptoms can worsen and become progressively longer if left untreated.

The Types of Seizures

There are many different types of seizures, depending on what part and how much of the brain is affected by the electrical activity. To understand the type of seizure you may have had, your doctor would begin by analyzing the types of symptoms you experienced.

The types of seizures on record include:

  • Tonic Clonic Seizures: A type of seizure characterized by a loss of consciousness and muscle contractions.
  • Tonic: The tonic phase of a tonic clonic seizure occurs at the beginning of the seizure. It is characterized by the muscles of the body becoming stiff.
  • Atonic Seizures: Cause the body to go limp and sometimes even fall to the ground.  A type of generalized seizure involving sudden loss of muscle tone, which is what causes the person to go limp.
  • Grand Mal Seizure: Also known as a generalized tonic clonic seizure that can last a short period of time, but cause injury to a person.

  • Absence Seizure: Characterized by not being fully conscious or aware of movements or surroundings throughout the seizure. Finally, abruptly resuming consciousness after the seizure.

  • Petit Mal Seizure: Sometimes referred to as an absence seizure. Characterized by sudden and short seizures that can last between 10 and 30 seconds. Symptoms include a vacant stare and unresponsiveness. Often mistaken for a lapse in attention, especially since the seizure is not followed by any confusion, headache or drowsiness, though the person may have no memory of the episode.

  • Atonic Seizure: Sudden loss of muscle tone and characterized by a brief loss of consciousness.

  • Benign Rolandic Epilepsy (BRE): A common childhood seizure syndrome representing approximately 15% of all childhood epilepsy. Also known as Benign Epilepsy of Childhood with Centrotemporal Spikes or BECTS.

  • Catamenial: A subset of epilepsy affecting women whose seizures are exacerbated by a sensitivity to endogenous hormonal changes brought on by their menstrual cycle.

  • Clonic: A stage in a grand mal seizure where the muscles repetitively jerk and relax. This is one of the stages of a tonic clonic seizure.

  • Dravet Syndrome: Pronounced (Drah-vey). A rare form of intractable epilepsy which begins in infancy and is sometimes known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy or SMEI.

  • Febrile Seizures in Young Children: A fever in children that spikes too fast and too hot can run the risk of a febrile seizure. These seizures can occur at any point in childhood, though they tend to occur in children between 6 months and 5 years of age.

  • Partial Focal Seizures: Characterized by contractions in one area of the body. A loss of consciousness during a partial focal seizure is possible.

  • Status Epilepticus: Most seizures may last up to a few minutes and in some rare instances, last longer or appear not to stop at all.

  • Temporal Lobe Seizures: Most common form of partial or local epilepsy. A higher risk for memory and mood difficulties. Characterized by a temporary disturbance in movement and emotions.

Causes of Seizures

Many things can cause seizures, such as fever, infections, a head injury, or stroke. Seizures can also be related to genetic disorders such as Angelman syndrome, tuberous sclerosis complex, or neurofibromatosis. Seizures can run in families and in some instances, especially with young children, there may be no known seizure cause.  

Anything that affects the body may also disturb the electric functioning of the brain, leading to a seizure. Some examples may include:

  • Alcohol and/or drug withdrawal
  • Drug abuse
  • Insect bites and/or stings
  • Brain infections such as meningitis
  • Congenital brain defects 
  • Choking
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Electric shock
  • Epilepsy
  • Extremely high blood pressure
  • Kidney or liver failure
  • Low blood glucose levels

Seizures and Epilepsy

Seizures and epilepsy are not the same. Epilepsy is a disease characterized by two or more unprovoked seizures separated by at least 24 hours.

Seeking Medical Help For Seizures

Since seizures can lead to injury, such as falls or trauma to the body, it is important for those with epilepsy to wear medical identification tags to alert emergency responders to your condition.

Notify your physician if you or anyone in your family has a history of seizures. Your medical team will instruct you on the course of treatment available for your specific type of seizure.

You may be instructed to notify friends and family about the type of care that is involved for a person experiencing a seizure. This includes reducing the risk of injury by cushioning the head, loosening tight clothing, and turning you on your side if vomiting occurs.

Sources:

The Epilepsy Foundation. Understanding Seizures. 

The Epilepsy Foundation. Triggers of Seizures. 

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