What is a Seizure?

A seizure is a sudden change in behavior, feelings, vision, speech, movements, or awareness that is caused by a problem with your brain’s electrical system. You may be diagnosed with epilepsy if you have recurrent seizures, but epilepsy does not cause all seizures.

Types of seizures include:

  • Focal seizures. Focal seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in one area of your brain and can occur with or without a loss of consciousness.
  • Generalized seizures. Generalized seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in all areas of the brain. Types of generalized seizures include:
    • Absence seizures. Absence seizures often result in staring into space, subtle body movements, and brief loss of awareness.
    • Atonic seizures. Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures, often cause loss of muscle control that can lead to falls.
    • Tonic seizures. Tonic seizures cause muscles to become stiff and may result in falls.
    • Clonic seizures. Clonic seizures cause repeated, jerky, or rhythmic movements.
    • Myoclonic seizures. Myoclonic seizures cause your arms or legs to briefly twitch or jerk.
    • Tonic-clonic seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures are the most dramatic seizure type and may cause loss of consciousness or bladder control and stiffening or shaking of the body.

Symptoms

Seizures can affect all areas of the body, or only one part or one side of the body, depending on where the seizure occurs in the brain. Symptoms of a seizure may include:

  • Jerky, rhythmic, twitching, or repetitive movements
  • Abnormal body sensations, such as dizziness or tingling
  • Staring
  • Confusion
  • Emotional changes
  • Altered vision
  • Stiffening
  • Falling down
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Sudden crying out or making noise

Causes and Risk Factors

Seizures can be caused by problems in the brain, such as tumors, infection, injury, or conditions that affect the blood vessels. Seizures can also occur as a result of:

  • High fever
  • Lack of sleep
  • Low blood sodium levels
  • Medications
  • Illegal or recreational drug use
  • Alcohol use

However, seizures can sometimes occur with no known cause.

Children are more likely than adults to develop epilepsy, and experts believe that a family history of epilepsy may increase the risk of developing the condition.


Diagnosis

To diagnose a seizure disorder, your doctor will review your medical history and ask questions about the seizure — such as when it occurred, what parts of your body were affected, how long it lasted, and what symptoms you experienced. Your doctor also may perform exams or order tests, including:

  • Neurological exams. Neurological exams will differ depending on your age, but older children and adults will be asked to answer questions and complete simple tasks to test movement, muscle condition, the function of each of the senses, and general neurological well-being.
  • Blood and urine tests. Your doctor may order blood or urine tests to check for signs of neurological disorders.
  • Brain imaging tests. Your doctor may order imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans to check for problems in the brain.
  • Electroencephalography (EEG). An EEG measures electrical activity in your brain.
  • Lumbar puncture. A lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, involves removing a sample of your cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from around your spinal cord and testing it to check for abnormalities.

Treatment

Proper treatment can help to prevent or reduce the frequency of seizures in most people. Your healthcare provider will recommend the best treatment for the type of seizure you are having and your specific symptoms.

Treatment options may include:

  • Medication. Anti-seizure medications can help to prevent or reduce the frequency of seizures. There are several anti-seizure medication options, and your healthcare provider will work closely with you to find the medication and dosage that is most effective with the fewest side effects.
  • Lifestyle modifications. Following a specific diet, managing stress, getting plenty of sleep, and other lifestyle modifications may improve seizure control in some people.
  • Surgery. Surgery treats seizures by finding and removing the area of your brain where your seizures start.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation. Vagus nerve stimulation uses a device that is implanted under the skin of your chest to stimulate the vagus nerve in your neck. The vagus nerve then sends signals to your brain that prevent seizures.
  • Responsive neurostimulation. Responsive neurostimulation involves implanting a device in or on your brain that detects seizure activity and delivers an electrical pulse to stop the seizure.
  • Deep brain stimulation. During deep brain stimulation, a neurosurgeon will implant electrodes in specific areas of your brain and attach them to a device placed under the skin of your chest. The device will send electrical impulses to the electrodes to regulate electrical activity in your brain.