Seizure Disorders and Epilepsy

Friday 26 February 2021
Seizure Disorders
6 minute(s) read

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jubil Tom, MD
on 3 May 2021

Table of Contents


I. Seizures vs. Epilepsy

II. Types of Seizures

a. Focal Seizures

b. Generalized Seizures

III. Possible Causes of Seizures

IV. Risk Factors for Seizure Disorders

V. Diagnosing Seizures


The neurons in a healthy brain transmit information continuously and seamlessly. The body relies on this process to function normally and a seizure occurs when this process in the brain breaks down. This can happen if multiple neurons misfire and cause electrical discharges that alter sensations and behavior. Seizures are often characterized by muscle spasms, twitching, or loss of consciousness. These seizure symptoms vary in severity, and they can be triggered by any type of trauma to the brain and its surrounding areas. [1]

There are many possible factors that can cause a seizure. Head injury, lack of oxygen, and a high fever are some things that can disrupt brain function and lead to a seizure. For those with a history of seizures, anticonvulsant medications are available. Anticonvulsants are used to slow the impulses in the brain and can reduce the frequency and severity of seizures. 

The type you are prescribed will depend on the specific type of seizure you experience. The seizure medications most commonly prescribed include Dilantin (phenytoin), Keppra (levetiracetam), Lamictal (lamotrigine), and Topamax (topiramate). Doctors will also determine the type of anticonvulsant based on factors like age, existing health conditions, and the severity of the seizures you experience. Read on to learn about the difference between seizures and epilepsy and the factors that increase your risk. 

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Seizures vs. Epilepsy

Many people mistake seizures for epilepsy. They may seem like interchangeable terms to describe the same disorder, but they are notA seizure is a brief temporary disturbance in the electrical activity of the brain whereas epilepsy is a disorder characterized by recurring seizures. A seizure is a symptom of epilepsy. [1] 

a woman experiencing a seizure.  width=

Types of Seizures

Seizures are not all the same. Some types are more difficult to control than others, and they may require nerve stimulation, diet therapy, and medications to manage symptoms. In severe types of recurring seizures, epilepsy surgery may be neededSeizures can be categorized into two main types: focal seizures and generalized seizures. They can then be put into more precise categories based on what symptoms they cause and what parts of the body they affect. [2] 

a. Focal Seizures 

Focal seizures, like its name implies, describes seizures that are caused by a disruption in one part of the brain. When the disruption remains in one motor area of the brain, a simple partial seizure may occur. A simple partial seizure, also known as a focal aware seizure, causes the person to feel unusual sensations. During this type of seizure, the person is conscious and aware of their movements and surroundings. 

The electrical activity during a focal aware seizure may spread across the brain and cause more symptoms. The person may start to feel a rising sensation in their stomach and feel as if they can sense things that have not happened yet. 

If the seizure spreads further across the brain and affects a large area, the person may become confused and dazed. When this happens, they are no longer experiencing a simple partial seizure. Instead, this is now a focal unaware seizure or a complex partial seizure. Other symptoms of this type of seizure include minor shaking, chewing motions, fumbling, and muscle stiffness. Focal seizures should be treated promptly to prevent them from developing into generalized seizures. Untreated focal seizures may lead to respiratory injuries. [2]

children in a classroom.  width=

b. Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures are characterized by surges of abnormal nerve firings throughout the brain cortex. These types of seizures usually occur when there is an imbalance between the inhibitory circuits and the excitatory circuits in the brain. Generalized seizures can be classified in the following way: 

Absence Seizures: Absence seizures are also known as petit mal seizures or childhood absence seizures. This type of seizure usually affects children between the ages of four and six. Children commonly outgrow absence seizures. However, they can persist into the teenage years and even adulthood. [2]

Myoclonic Seizures: Myoclonic seizures typically occur in the morning, although the reason for this is unclear. They can cause sudden body jerks and distress in the neck, head, and arms. Those in their adolescent years may be more prone to developing recurrent myoclonic seizures. [2]

Tonic and Atonic Seizures: Tonic seizures are characterized by abrupt attacks of body-wide stiffness. Tonic seizures are especially dangerous because they can easily cause falls and serious injury. Atonic seizures are similar to tonic seizures in that they affect the entire body. The difference is that atonic seizures cause sudden loss of body tone. Those who have atonic seizures often sustain injuries from collapsing. Sometimes, tonic and atonic seizures can occur consecutively, forming a tonic-atonic seizure. [2]

Tonic-Clonic Seizures: A tonic-clonic seizure is what people usually think of when they think of seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures used to be called grand mal seizures. The word “tonic” means stiffening, and the word “clonic” refers to rhythmic jerking. During a tonic-clonic seizure, the muscle stiffening usually occurs first, and a person may lose consciousness because their tightened vocal cords may force air out of their chest. During this stage, the person may injure themselves by biting down on their tongue. When the clinic stage comes, the person may jerk rapidly and wail their arms in abrupt motions. Tonic-clonic seizures last between one and three minutes and usually stop on their own. However, a seizure that lasts longer than five minutes will require medical attention. [3] 

Possible Causes of Seizures

There are many possible things that can cause a seizure. As mentioned, anything that can disrupt brain function is a potential cause. For example, a brain tumor or blood vessel abnormalities in the brain can trigger a seizure. Some other common seizure causes include: 

  • Alcohol abuse, extreme intoxication, or abrupt withdrawal
  • Autoimmune disorders like lupus or multiple sclerosis
  • COVID-19 virus infection
  • Flashing lights and other visual stimulants
  • Head trauma and bleeding in the brain
  • High fever
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Low blood sodium
  • Pain relievers and antidepressants
  • Stroke
  • Amphetamines or cocaine [4] 

a person being tested for a fever.  width=

Risk Factors for Seizure Disorders

Some types of seizures, like generalized seizures, may be due to genetic factors. If you have a family member that is affected by generalized seizures, you have a slightly increased risk of developing them yourself. Those who drink a lot of alcohol can overwork the excitatory response in their brain, making generalized seizures more likely. Those who work long hours and are not well-rested may unintentionally put themselves at risk of a seizure due to sleep deprivation. [2] 

Diagnosing Seizures

When you see your doctor after experiencing a seizure, you will likely undergo tests to evaluate your risk of another seizure. There are many types of tests, and your doctor may suggest certain tests over others depending on the seizure you experienced. Some of the most common tests for diagnosis include: 

  • Neurological exam
  • Blood test
  • Lumbar puncture
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • Computerized tomography scan (CT scan)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan [5]

Regardless of the type of seizure, you are diagnosed with, you will likely be prescribed medication to prevent a future seizing event. Your doctor may prescribe an anticonvulsant like Dilantin (phenytoin), Keppra (levetiracetam), Lamictal (lamotrigine), or Topamax (topiramate). These conditions can be managed with the right treatment plan and lifestyle adjustments. Talk to your doctor about seizure prevention and take control of your brain health today.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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