Epilepsy is a disorder where you have recurring seizures. Under normal conditions, neurons in the brain discharge randomly. Seizures are caused by bursts of electricity set off in the brain by neurons that discharge in a coordinated way. A seizure usually can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. In some serious cases, they can last longer.
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 speaking nonsense)
- convulse violently
Although they can vary widely, specific symptoms are usually associated with specific kinds of seizures. An episode can start out as a simpler form of seizure, but can grow worse and become another type of seizure with more widespread or powerful symptoms.
The type of seizure depends on which part and how much of the brain is affected. Different seizure types and their related symptoms include the following.
Also called a focal or local seizure, this type is limited to a specific part of the brain. The awareness of the affected person is not altered, but other symptoms depend on what the malfunctioning part of the brain controls. Limited parts of the body might twitch. You may also have tingling or sensory hallucinations like strange sights or smells.
This type is also limited to specific parts of the brain and can have widely varying symptoms. Unlike the simple partial seizure, these affect your awareness. The seizure may start when you appear to stare off at nothing or perform odd, meaningless behaviors known as automatisms. These can include fumbling with clothes and making chewing motions. After the seizure, the person may be disoriented.
This type is also known as the grand mal seizure. The initial warning sign of a tonic-clonic seizure may be a grunt or other vocalization. This is followed by a slumping over of the body, which briefly becomes rigid (the tonic phase). Your body then begins to convulse, known as the clonic phase. During the seizure, you will twitch and undergo rhythmic jerking. It may cause you to bite down on your tongue, resulting in bleeding from the mouth. You also may be unable to control secretions, leading to increased salivation, or foaming at the mouth. There may also be a loss of control of bowel or bladder functions, injury from the convulsions, or injuries from the body striking objects during the seizure.
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 be the result of a more limited type of seizure worsening. In that case, it’s a secondary generalized seizure.
The electrical misfire starts in a specific area of the brain, but the malfunction cascades into larger areas of the brain. This can happen swiftly or slowly.
Also known as petit mal seizures, absence seizures occur more often in children. They usually include a brief loss of awareness in which the child stops what they are doing and stares off into space, unresponsive. The child may blink rapidly or go limp. Although they only last seconds, petit mals can recur numerous times in one day. The possibility of absence seizures should be considered in kids who seem “spacey” or who have difficulty paying attention.
These seizures usually feature super-fast jerking of specific portions of the body. They can feel like jumps inside the body that may affect the limbs, jaw, or other parts of the body. People without epilepsy can feel these types of jerks or twitches, especially when falling asleep or when waking in the morning.
Also known as astatic seizures or drop attacks, these seizures involve a brief loss of consciousness in the affected person. Once an atonic seizure is over, the person is usually unaware of what happened. Symptoms can range from slumping or nodding briefly before recovering to the person collapsing.