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Contact the Epilepsy Program

What is a Seizure? 

A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain. It can cause changes in awareness, behavior, movements, feelings, and levels of consciousness.

What are Common Symptoms of a Seizure? 

Signs and symptoms range from mild to severe and may vary depending on the type of seizure.

Seizure signs and symptoms may include:

  • Temporary confusion
  • Staring spells
  • Uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs
  • Loss of consciousness or awareness
  • Cognitive or emotional symptoms, such as fear, anxiety or Deja vu

Types of Seizures 

Seizures are commonly classified as either focal or generalized, based on how and where abnormal brain activity begins. Seizures may also be classified as unknown onset, if how the seizure began isn't known.

Focal seizures

Focal seizures result from abnormal electrical activity in one area of your brain. Focal seizures can occur with or without loss of consciousness:

  • Focal seizures with impaired awareness. These seizures involve a change or loss of consciousness or awareness. You may stare into space and not respond normally to your environment or perform repetitive movements, such as hand rubbing, chewing, swallowing or walking in circles.
  • Focal seizures without loss of consciousness. These seizures may alter emotions or change the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound, but you don't lose consciousness. These seizures may also result in the involuntary jerking of a body part, such as an arm or leg, and spontaneous sensory symptoms such as tingling, dizziness and flashing lights.

Symptoms of focal seizures may be confused with other neurological disorders, such as migraine, narcolepsy or mental illness.

Generalized seizures

Seizures that appear to involve all areas of the brain are called generalized seizures. Different types of generalized seizures include:

  • Absence seizures. Absence seizures, previously known as petit mal seizures, often occur in children and are characterized by staring into space or by subtle body movements, such as eye blinking or lip smacking. These seizures may occur in clusters and cause a brief loss of awareness.
  • Tonic seizures. Tonic seizures cause stiffening of your muscles. These seizures usually affect muscles in your back, arms and legs and may cause you to fall to the ground.
  • Atonic seizures. Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures, cause a loss of muscle control, which may cause you to suddenly collapse or fall down.
  • Clonic seizures. Clonic seizures are associated with repeated or rhythmic, jerking muscle movements. These seizures usually affect the neck, face and arms.
  • Myoclonic seizures. Myoclonic seizures usually appear as sudden brief jerks or twitches of your arms and legs.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures, previously known as grand mal seizures, are the most dramatic type of epileptic seizure and can cause an abrupt loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, and sometimes loss of bladder control or biting your tongue

Types of Seizure Syndromes 

Seizure syndromes are classified as a cluster of features which includes the age when seizures begin, the seizure types, and EEG findings, along with other features. See the Epilepsy Foundation website for additional information about seizure syndromes.

Seizure First Aid and Safety 

    • Do not forcibly hold a person down.
    • Do not put anything in the person’s mouth.
    • Make sure their breathing is normal.
    • Do not give the person anything to eat, drink, or swallow unless they are fully aware and conscious
    • Always stay with the person until the seizure is over.
    • Note the time the of the seizure from beginning to end.
    • Keep additional people “onlookers” to a minimum.
    • Stay calm, talk calm and reassuringly to the person having the seizure and those around you.
    • Make the person as comfortable as possible.
    • Be sensitive and supportive and ask others to do the same.
      • Call for emergency medical help when:
        • A seizure lasts five minutes or longer.
        • One seizure occurs right after another without the person regaining consciousness or coming to between seizures.
        • Seizures occur closer together than usual for that person.
        • Breathing becomes difficult or the person appears to be choking.
        • The seizure occurs in water.
        • Injury may have occurred.
        • The person asks for medical help.