How Seizures Affect the Body

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Having a seizure can be an alarming experience, and whether yours have been mild or severe, you probably have many questions. Understanding what’s happening to your brain and how it’s affecting your body can be helpful and comforting for you and your loved ones as you learn more about managing your condition.


Epilepsy Symptoms

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder, which affects some or all functions of your brain. It can be caused by mutated genes, brain injury or disease. Since your brain controls everything from movement and balance to memory and emotions, an epileptic episode can disrupt this activity, resulting in a seizure or other unusual behaviors or sensations.

When you think of a seizure, you probably picture someone falling to the floor with arms and legs twitching. But seizure symptoms can vary a great deal, and you may have a much different experience. Some people with epilepsy have temporary confusion or simply stare blankly for a few seconds. And some do, in fact, experience uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs. Some may even lose consciousness for a short period.

Your symptoms are determined by the type of seizures you have and where they are located in the brain. For example, a seizure in the part of the brain that controls movement might affect your arms or legs. If a larger part of the brain is affected, there’s a higher likelihood that more body parts will be affected.

Your doctor has probably told you that your seizures are either generalized or focal. Once you know the type of seizures you have, you can count on any future episodes likely being the same, with similar symptoms. Your doctor will also determine your treatment based on the type of seizures you have.

Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures typically involve all areas of the brain. There are six types, which can include the following symptoms:

  • Absence seizures (also called petit mal seizures and common in children): staring into space, subtle body movements such as eye blinking or lip smacking, brief loss of awareness

  • Tonic seizures: stiffening of the muscles (usually in the back, arms and legs), falling to the ground

  • Atonic seizures (or drop seizures): loss of muscle control, collapsing or falling down

  • Clonic seizures: repeated or rhythmic, jerking movements of the muscles (usually in the neck, face and arms)

  • Myoclonic seizures: sudden brief jerks or twitches of the arms and legs

  • Tonic-clonic seizures (or grand mal seizures): sudden loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, loss of bladder control or biting the tongue

Focal seizures

Focal (or partial) seizures typically affect just one area of the brain. There are two types:

  • Complex partial seizures (may be confused with a migraine, narcolepsy or mental illness): a change or loss of consciousness or awareness, staring into space, not responding, performing repetitive movements (such as hand rubbing, chewing, swallowing or walking in circles)

  • Simple partial seizures (without loss of consciousness): change in emotions or senses, tingling, dizziness, or involuntary jerking of the arms or legs

Treatment

The good news is treatment can help control seizures for roughly 80% of those with epilepsy. Your doctor may have prescribed medications or surgery to help prevent seizures. It’s important to stick with your doctor’s treatment plan, since even mild seizures can be dangerous during activities such as driving or swimming. Getting plenty of sleep can also help, since lack of sleep can trigger a seizure. And be sure to wear a medical alert bracelet so emergency workers will know how to treat you properly during or after a seizure.

The more you learn about what may happen during a seizure, and how to handle one, the more you can share with friends, family and co-workers, so you will all be prepared for any future episodes.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Dec 5
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Types of Seizures. The Epilepsy Foundation. http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/types-seizures

  2. Epilepsy. BrainFacts.org. http://www.brainfacts.org/diseases-disorders/epilepsy/

  3. Epilepsy: How Seizures Affect the Body. Mount Nittany Health. http://www.mountnittany.org/articles/healthsheets/3406

  4. Epilepsy. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epilepsy/home/ovc-20117206