Approximately 2.8 million Americans have epilepsy. You should also know that some patients have drug-resistant epilepsy—epilepsy that cannot be controlled by medications—and should be evaluated for surgery. At MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, our doctors are experts in diagnosing and treating epilepsy and use sophisticated tools to establish a definitive diagnosis in the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit.
On this page, you will find information about:
- Understanding epileptic seizures
- Symptoms of epileptic seizures
- Non-epileptic seizures
- Types of epileptic seizures
- First-aid for seizures
Understanding Epileptic Seizures
Normal brain activity involves flow of electrical energy. When the energy flows in a controlled manner, you function well. When the brain cells malfunction and keep firing electrical signals, you experience an epileptic seizure. The energy surging through your brain causes the seizure. The electrical disturbance always begins in the brain, but may affect any part of your body. Your symptoms can be relatively minor or more extensive.
Symptoms of Epileptic Seizures
Minor symptoms may include:
- Clouded awareness
- Difficulty communicating
Symptoms that are more extensive may involve:
- Loss of consciousness
- Uncontrolled muscle movements
The severity of your symptoms depends on several factors, including where the disturbance is occurring in your brain and how long your seizure lasts. While most seizures last only a minute or two, you may experience lingering confusion afterwards.
In order for you to be diagnosed with epilepsy, you must have had at least two unprovoked seizures. Learn more about seizure signs and symptoms.
Not all seizures are caused by epilepsy. These are known as non-epileptic seizures, or NES. NES are not caused by abnormal electrical activity, and are relatively common. Learn more about non-epileptic seizures.
Some people with NES also have epileptic seizures. If you have both types of seizures, we will help you and your family to learn how to tell them apart. Our medical team at The Comprehensive Epilepsy Center will use the most sophisticated diagnostic tools available in order to determine the type of seizure you have had, and to help you manage your symptoms. You will feel as prepared as you can possibly be.
Types of Epileptic Seizures
If your seizures are epileptic, they fall into two main categories:
- Generalized seizures – These kinds of seizures involve the entire brain. Because of the extensive area affected, symptoms always include loss of consciousness.
- Partial seizures – These kinds of seizures originate in a single area of the brain. Depending on the affected area, partial seizures can affect different physical, emotional or sensory functions. Patients who experience partial seizures may benefit from epilepsy surgery.
Learn more about treatments for epilepsy at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
There are several types of generalized seizures:
- Absence seizures (formerly referred to as petit mal seizures) – This type of seizure can cause a brief (10–20 second) loss of consciousness and staring. Symptoms are so fleeting that they may go unnoticed for some time. This type of generalized seizure is more likely to affect children.
- Myoclonic seizures – This type of seizure may cause you to lose consciousness and experience rapid, brief muscle contractions. The affected muscles will usually contract on both sides of the body at the same time. To a bystander, it may look like sudden jerks or clumsiness.
- Atonic seizures – This type of seizure can be particularly dangerous. Along with loss of consciousness, abrupt, sudden muscle weakness occurs without any warning. This can cause you to fall down suddenly, sometimes resulting in head or face injuries.
- Tonic-clonic seizures (formerly referred to as grand mal seizures) – This is the best-known type of seizure. You may cry out or fall as your seizure begins. You will lose consciousness for one to two minutes, and begin to experience stiffening of the limbs (the tonic phase), followed by jerking of the limbs and face (the clonic phase). Afterwards, you will have a recovery period. Do not be surprised if you experience amnesia regarding seizure events, confusion and deep sleep.
There are several types of partial seizures:
- Simple partial seizure – This type of seizure does not involve loss of consciousness. You may experience sudden jerking, unusual sensations or movements.
- Complex partial seizures – This type of seizure involves impaired consciousness or total loss of consciousness. You may experience an aura, have a period of staring (30–60 seconds), and be generally unaware of your environment. After the seizure is over, you may be somewhat confused and sleepy.
- Secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizures – Occasionally, a partial seizure may lead to a generalized, full-blown tonic-clonic seizure. When this occurs, the resulting seizure is called a secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizure. The symptoms are the same as if the tonic-clonic seizure occurred spontaneously.
First Aid for Seizures
Watching someone you love go through a seizure can be quite frightening. It is important to remember, however, that first aid for seizures is actually very simple:
- Secure the environment – If the person experiencing the seizure begins to jerk, convulse and fall to the ground, make sure that the area is free of dangerous or sharp objects that might harm them. Wait until they are no longer stiff and the seizure is at its end. Turn their entire body to the side, and loosen anything that is tied around their neck, so that they can breathe easily. Do not attempt to hold the person down or restrain him or her in any way.
- Time the seizure – It is important to note how long the seizure lasts. Seizures should last no more than a minute or two. In general, the seizure will run its natural course—there is nothing you can do to shorten it. Rarely, drugs may be needed to stop a very lengthy seizure, but this is not typically the case.
- Remain calm – Seizures may look frightening, but are not usually a medical emergency. Stay calm, and wait for the seizure to end. As the person regains consciousness, stay with them and reassure them. Allow them to rest and recover afterwards. Most of the time, the person recovering from a seizure will be able to resume activities with minor assistance. However, do not let the person drive or operate dangerous equipment. If you find that this is not true for your loved one, seek emergency care.
There are, however, certain circumstances in which any seizure is considered a medical emergency. If your loved one is known to have any of the following conditions, seek emergency care immediately.
If this was your first seizure, you will want to seek medical care and begin the diagnostic process. The Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital boasts an impressive team of epilepsy experts, all under one roof, who will take you from early diagnosis to treatment, and make sure that you feel taken care of, every step of the way.
Learn more about epilepsy diagnosis.