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Seizures vs. Seizure Disorders

Overview

Seizure terminology can be confusing. Though the terms can be used interchangeably, seizures and seizure disorders are different. A seizure refers to a single surge of electrical activity in your brain. A seizure disorder is a condition in which a person has multiple seizures.

What is a seizure?

A seizure is an abnormal electrical discharge that occurs in your brain. Usually brain cells, or neurons, flow in an organized fashion along the surface of your brain. A seizure occurs when there is an excess of electrical activity.

Seizures can cause symptoms such as muscle spasms, limb twitches, and loss of consciousness. They can also lead to changes in feeling and behavior.

A seizure is a onetime event. If you have more than one seizure, your doctor may diagnose it as a larger disorder. According to the Minnesota Epilepsy Group, having one seizure will put you at a 40-50 percent chance of having another one within two years, if you don’t take medication. Taking medication can reduce your risk of getting another seizure by about half.

What is a seizure disorder?

Typically, you are diagnosed with a seizure disorder once you’ve had two or more “unprovoked” seizures. Unprovoked seizures have what are considered natural causes, such as genetic factors or metabolic imbalances in your body.

“Provoked” seizures are triggered by a specific event like a brain injury or stroke. To be diagnosed with epilepsy or a seizure disorder, you need to have at least two unprovoked seizures.

Are there different types of seizures?

Seizures are classified into two primary types: partial seizures, also called focal seizures, and generalized seizures. Both can be associated with seizure disorders.

Partial Seizures

Partial, or focal, seizures begin in a specific part of your brain. If they originate on one side of your brain and spread to other areas, they are called simple partial seizures. If they begin in an area of your brain that affects consciousness, they are called complex partial seizures.

Simple partial seizures have symptoms including:

  • involuntary muscle twitching
  • vision changes
  • dizziness
  • sensory changes

Complex partial seizures can cause similar symptoms, and may also lead to loss of consciousness.

Generalized seizures

Generalized seizures begin on both sides of your brain at the same time. Because these seizures spread quickly, it can be difficult to tell where they originated. This makes certain kinds of treatments more difficult.

There are several different types of generalized seizures, each with their own symptoms:

  • Absence seizures are brief episodes that may make you stare off while remaining motionless, as though you are daydreaming. They typically occur in children.
  • Myoclonic seizures can cause your arms and legs to twitch on both sides of your body
  • Tonic-clonic seizures can go on for a long time, sometimes up to 20 minutes. This type of seizure can cause more serious symptoms, such as loss of bladder control and loss of consciousness, in addition to uncontrolled movements.

Febrile seizures

Another type of seizure is a febrile seizure that occurs in infants as the result of a fever. About one in every 25 children, between the ages of 6 months to 5 years, has a febrile seizure, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Generally, children who have febrile seizures don’t need to be hospitalized, but if the seizure is prolonged, your doctor may order hospitalization to observe your child.

Who gets seizures and seizure disorders?

A number of risk factors can increase your chance of developing seizures or a seizure disorder, which include:

  • having a previous brain infection or injury
  • developing a brain tumor
  • having a history of stroke
  • having a history of complex febrile seizures
  • using certain recreational drugs or certain medications
  • overdosing on drugs
  • being exposed to toxic substances

Be cautious if you have Alzheimer’s disease, liver or kidney failure, or severe high blood pressure that go untreated, which can increase your chance of having a seizure or developing a seizure disorder.

Once your doctor has diagnosed you with a seizure disorder, certain factors can also increase your possibility of having a seizure:

  • feeling stressed
  • not getting enough sleep
  • drinking alcohol
  • changes in your hormones, such as during a woman’s menstrual cycle

What causes seizures?

Neurons use electrical activity to communicate and transmit information. Seizures occur when brain cells behave abnormally, causing neurons to misfire and send wrong signals.

Seizures are most common in early childhood and after age 60. Also, certain conditions may lead to seizures, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
  • heart problems, such as stroke or heart attack
  • head or brain injury, including injury before birth
  • lupus
  • meningitis

Some newer research investigates possible genetic causes of seizures.

How are seizures and seizure disorders treated?

There is no known treatment that can cure seizures or seizure disorders, but a variety of treatments may help to prevent them or help you avoid seizure triggers.

Medicines

Your doctor may prescribe medicines called antiepileptics, which aim to alter or reduce excess electrical activity in your brain. Some of the many kinds of these medicines include phenytoin and carbamazepine.

Surgery

Surgery may be another treatment option if you have partial seizures that aren’t helped by medicine. The goal of surgery is to remove the part of your brain where your seizures begin.

Diet changes

Changing what you eat can also help. Your doctor may recommend a ketogenic diet, which is low in carbohydrates and proteins, and high in fats. This eating pattern may change your body’s chemistry and may result in a decrease in your frequency of seizures.

Outlook

Experiencing seizures can be frightening and although there is no permanent cure for seizures or seizure disorders, treatment aims to reduce risk factors, manage symptoms, and prevent seizures from occurring again.

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