Witnessing a seizure is disconcerting—an experience one is not likely to forget. However, with a better understanding of seizures, their causes, available treatments and ways to help someone having a seizure, we can be of greater assistance to friends, family and even strangers who are affected by them.
Seizures are caused by a disturbance in the brain’s electrical system. Instead of sending organized, orderly signals that tell our bodies what to do, the brain sends signals that cause uncontrolled movements, sensations or behaviors. Seizures usually last from a few seconds to a few minutes.
There are several causes of seizures. Febrile seizures are those caused by high fever. They are somewhat common in small children and are not harmful. Parents are understandably terrified when their child has a seizure, but febrile seizures are not likely to be a recurring problem because, in this case, there are no problems in the brain’s structure.
Seizures can be either generalized, meaning that they involve the entire brain, or partial, meaning that the seizure originates in a single area of the brain. Generalized seizures almost always include a loss of consciousness. Depending on the origination point of the seizure in the brain, people who experience partial seizures may benefit from epilepsy surgery.
The most common generalized seizures are:
Absence seizure (petit mal seizures)
- Can cause a 10- to 20-second loss of consciousness and staring
- Symptoms are so fleeting that they may go unnoticed for some time
- More likely to affect children
Tonic-clonic seizure (grand mal seizure)
- Most recognized type of seizure
- May be characterized by falling or crying out as the seizure begins
- Brief loss of consciousness; followed by stiffening of the limbs (tonic phase), then jerking of the limbs and face (clonic phase); and ending with a recovery period
- Aftereffects may include amnesia regarding seizure events, confusion and deep sleep
There are several types of partial seizures:
Simple partial seizure
- Does not involve loss of consciousness
- May include sudden jerking or unusual sensations or movements
Complex partial seizures
- May include impaired or total loss of consciousness
- May include an aura (unusual sensation before seizure), a 30- to 60-second period of staring and lack of awareness of one’s environment
- Confusion and sleepiness may follow
Secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizures
- A partial seizure that leads to a generalized, full-blown tonic-clonic seizure
- Includes the same symptoms as if the tonic-clonic seizure occurred spontaneously
Many wonder how to help someone who is having a seizure. Start by calling 911. Next, try to eliminate the possibility of self-injury by moving potentially harmful objects out of the way. Afterwards, protect the person’s airway by tilting his or her head back or rolling the body to the side. If you can do so without injuring yourself, help lower the person to the floor. Never try to restrain someone who is having a seizure or put anything into his or her mouth.
Although epilepsy can have a devastating impact on life, new medications and procedures available at MedStar Georgetown have reduced or eliminated seizures in many people. In fact, with epilepsy monitoring, we can accurately diagnose seizures and pinpoint the exact locations in the brain where they occur. And with the right diagnosis, we can provide the right treatment—from modified medication regimens to advanced surgeries. Returning to a productive life is possible.