Seizures

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Introduction

What are seizures?

Seizures are uncontrolled spasms or convulsions caused by abnormal patterns of electrical activity in the brain. Because the entire brain, or any part of the brain, can be affected, there are many types of seizures with many manifestations. Seizures can result from almost any type of damage to the brain, including injury and infection. Recurrent seizures are a sign of epilepsy.

The most common types of seizures are partial, petit mal, and generalized tonic-clonic, or grand mal, seizures. Partial seizures only affect a small part of the brain and may have very specific symptoms. Petit mal seizures may only manifest themselves in a brief episode of staring and unresponsiveness. Grand mal seizures affect the entire brain. Grand mal seizures are marked by spasms of the entire body and complete loss of consciousness. Seizures may also be classified according to their cause or age of onset.

Seizures generally stop on their own. Because a person having a seizure is unconscious, it is important to make sure they do not injure themselves. Following a seizure, the person may be tired and require rest. Weakness, fatigue, and changes in mood and behavior are normal after seizures.

Seizures should be evaluated by medical professionals. For recurrent seizures or epilepsy, medications may be prescribed. In severe cases, surgery or electrical stimulation may be required. In many cases, treating the underlying cause of the seizures will help resolve them.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any seizure, as prompt medical treatment may reduce the risk and severity of future seizures.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with seizures?

Seizures may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the brain may also involve many other systems.

Perceptual symptoms that may occur along with seizures

Seizures may accompany other symptoms affecting your sensations and perceptions including:

  • Changes in hearing, taste or smell

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment

  • Difficulty with memory

  • Hallucinations

  • Loss of vision or changes in vision

Other symptoms that may occur along with seizures

Seizures may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Seizures can be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any seizure, as prompt medical treatment may reduce the risk and severity of future seizures.

Causes

What causes seizures?

Seizures can arise from any disorder, event or disease that damages the brain and stimulates unusual electrical activity. In some cases, seizures may result from medication side effects. Developmental factors may also lead to seizures. Finally, in some cases, seizures may not have a known cause.

Disease and disorder causes of seizures

Seizures can be caused by a variety of diseases and disorders including:

  • Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

  • Dementia

  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

  • Huntington’s disease (a genetic disorder causing nerve cells in the brain to waste away)

  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Other infections of the brain

  • Phenylketonuria (inability to break down the amino acid phenylalanine)

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Tumors of the brain

  • Vascular disease including inflammation of the blood vessels

Other causes of seizures

Seizures can be caused by a variety of other circumstances including:

Serious or life-threatening causes of seizures

Seizures may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Epilepsy (neurological disorder causing recurrent seizures)

  • Hematoma (collection of blood in the brain)

  • Shock (dangerously low blood pressure)

  • Stroke

  • Transient ischemic attack (temporary stroke-like symptoms that may be a warning sign of an impending stroke)

  • Traumatic brain injury

Questions for diagnosing the cause of seizures

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your seizures including:

  • Is this your first seizure?

  • Do you have a family history of seizures or epilepsy?

  • Do you have an infection?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Have you had any recent head injuries?

  • Have you had any recent surgery?

  • Have you recently had any alcohol or recreational drugs?

  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of seizures?

Seizures can range from mild and spontaneously resolving to serious and chronic. Because seizures involve bouts of unconsciousness, it is possible to undergo an injury during a seizure. Because seizures can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage

  • Damage to your tongue or mouth due to biting during seizure

  • Injury during seizure

  • Pulmonary aspiration (inhaling blood, vomited material, or other substances into lungs)

  • Status epilepticus (recurrent seizures without recovery)

  • Sudden death from heart arrhythmia

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 4
  1. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
  2. Epilepsy. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001714/.
  3. NINDS epilepsy information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/epilepsy/epilepsy.htm.
  4. Seizures. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/seizures.html.
  5. Seizures. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0003684/
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