Signs of Seizures

Was That a Seizure? 10 Surprising Facts About Epilepsy
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When you picture someone having a seizure, you probably think of what you've seen in the movies: someone being held down, thrashing and bucking in the throes of an epileptic fit. But what if that's not necessarily what a seizure looks like at all? And what if having a seizure doesn’t even mean you have epilepsy? Here are 10 surprising facts about epilepsy that will test your assumptions about this little-understood condition.

1. Anyone Can Have a Seizure
What many people don't realize is that anyone can have a seizure, and it doesn't mean you have epilepsy. In fact, doctors don't even begin to look at whether you have epilepsy until you've had two or more seizures. So how do you know you have epilepsy? Everyone is born with a seizure threshold, which may be high or low. For the majority of people, this threshold is high, making them less likely to suffer a seizure. However, for some people this threshold is much lower.

2. Epilepsy Is More Common Than Most People Think
Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States, after migraine, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. At any given point in time, about one percent of Americans have some form of epilepsy, and nearly four percent -- or 1 in 26 -- will develop epilepsy at some point in their lives. And 10 percent of Americans will have at least one seizure during their lifetime. Epilepsy is by no means most commonly a lifelong disease -- in fact, there are just as many people who develop epilepsy after the age of 65 as there are children born with it. The number of people in the U.S. with epilepsy tops the number that have multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy put together.

Types of Epilepsy, How They Look

3. There Are More Than 40 Types of Epilepsy
It might surprise you to know that more than 40 different types of epilepsy have been identified, and there are about 20 different types of seizures. A seizure is caused by a burst of electrical activity in the brain, which can cause a vast variety of symptoms. The "typical" seizure that most people picture, once called grand mal and know known as generalized tonic-clonic, causes muscle rigidity and spasms. But other types are different, and the signs may be subtle and easily confused with other conditions. Absence seizures (once called petit mal), for example, are characterized by silence and a blank stare. The person may seem momentarily "absent," hence the name. Drop seizures cause sufferers to crumple to the ground; myoclonic seizure is most often characterized by jerks and muscle movements, which may be confused with a tic disorder such as Tourette's syndrome. People with unusual types of seizures may need to explain their conditions to those around them -- including bosses and coworkers -- because otherwise it's easy for people to misunderstand what's happening.

4. Seizures Can Mimic Mental Illness
Did you know that shouting gibberish can be the primary sign of a seizure? So can undressing in public or repeating a word or phrase over and over. A type of seizure called a complex partial seizure can cause someone to make strange vocalizations and chewing motions, pick at their clothing, and make other movements that may seem bizarre to onlookers.

Seizure Triggers and Seizure Damage

5. Many Factors Can Trigger a Seizure
Whether your seizure threshold is naturally high or low, there are many things that can cause a seizure. Illness (particularly fever), stress, drinking alcohol, lack of sleep, drops in blood sugar or pressure, and irregular heartbeat can make you more susceptible to having a seizure. For approximately one in 20 epileptics, flickering or bright lights can trigger a seizure, known as photosensitive epilepsy. For women, hormonal fluctuations can raise susceptibility to seizures.

6. Seizures Don't Mean Brain Damage
This one works both ways: You might assume a seizure stems from damage or injury to the brain, or you might believe having a seizure leads to brain damage. However, neither is necessarily true. In some cases, grand mal (single tonic-clonic) seizures, the most common kind, can stem from severe head trauma. But there are lots of other causes. And head trauma does not cause seizures in most instances. Brain damage is most likely to occur from a grand mal seizure that lasts more than ten minutes.

Unexplained Epilepsy and Patterns

7. Most Epilepsy Is Unexplained
In about 30 percent of all epilepsy cases, doctors can identify an underlying cause. But in 70 percent of epilepsy cases, there is no known cause. These cases are referred to as idiopathic or cryptogenic epilepsy.

8. Seizures Follow a Pattern
A seizure is not one continuous event but follows a pattern, with a beginning, middle, and end. The first phase, called the aura, refers to telltale signs that precede a seizure, which may be dizziness and light-headedness or sensory signals such as sounds, smells, and tastes. Some people experience a feeling of déjà vu. The middle phase is the physical seizure itself, while the end phase, called the postictal phase, usually consists of confusion, disorientation, or memory loss. The postictal phase covers the entire period of brain recovery and can take up several hours. For most people with epilepsy, seizures follow a stereotypic pattern of symptoms and behaviors.

Controlling a Seizure and Long-Term Epilepsy

9. Epilepsy May Be Short-Lived
While most people think of epilepsy as a lifelong condition, only 25 percent of people who suffer seizures develop long-term, uncontrollable ones.

10. There's No Need to Control a Seizure
While you may have seen people in the movies holding down someone having a seizure, this is not the right thing to do. Instead, gently roll the person on one side, moving anything that could cause an injury. Support his head, and make sure he's breathing regularly. Most seizures will end without intervention within seconds or a few minutes. Neither should you put something into the mouth of someone having a seizure. This can have very serious consequences, including chipping teeth, cutting gums, and even breaking their jaw. And contrary to popular opinion, it is physically impossible for someone to swallow his own tongue, so there's no need to worry about this.


Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio


over 2 years ago, said...

me only person in world knows how epilepsy comes and goes from experience know its contagious


over 2 years ago, said...

I take Topamax, but not for seizures, it's for migraines.


over 2 years ago, said...

i was 15 when i had my first grand mal seizure, i had three that night...i wasn't diagnosed with epilepsy until i was 22, the birth of my second daughter triggered something. i just kept waking up confused with ems workers around me, asking questions i couldn't answer. now i'm 32 i've had my license suspended three times now, several bouts with depression, i think i have fully accepted epilepsy as a part of who i am now. i no longer hide it. i keep reading does anyone on here take topamax? i'm allergic to almost everything and what i'm not allergic to makes me gain weight... i just wish i had a friend in this.


over 2 years ago, said...

More of a question than a comment. One of my brothers has the grand mal type seizures but any noise and he follows that noise and can become violent during his seizure. So how is one to control him in that case?


over 2 years ago, said...

I'm 45. Female. Had my first every seizure this past summer. All tests come back normal. Fast forward to December 19 and I have 3 more, 2 at home and one at the ER. Again all test normal. I do some digging. I think its hormonal and the link is progesterone, being too low. Drs. don't want to listen to this even though I am findings tons of info on it. Did see my ob/gyn and she tested my levels and sure enough, just like I had thought for years, my progesterone was very low, she has me on 200 mg every night now. I also take keppra for the seizures. I just want someone to hear me on the hormone aspect.


over 2 years ago, said...

thank you this was quite informative. I have hypoglycemia,plus low blood sugar and then am told I have epilepsy.my thinking is I don't have epilepsy and have been told i am a diabetic 2. so I don't know how to distinguish the diabetes from the epilepsy. I do take med. for epilepsy not for the diabetes.


over 2 years ago, said...

why is it you can work all your life and have seizures due to brain tumor and as time goes on your seizures have changed you do things you don't know the absent seizures and you have grand mals that make you so sick the entire day that you can't do anything and when you try to get disability you have problems the disability board don't seem to understand the different types of seizures but any other person that has never worked their life can get every type of government asst. even those that are not American this is america


over 2 years ago, said...

I have seizers but they are like real bad headache. They have me on medicine for them . I have had them all my life they are due to me having Water on the brain .


over 2 years ago, said...

I have the petit mal seizures. I do have the Deja vu. In fact that is what I always called it until I was diagnosed. My concern now is I have had 2 strokes so far & docs are thinking it's possibly related to my seizures. My bp, cholesterol & all that stuff is in good shape & no plaque buildup thank goodness. My meds control the seizures for the most part but I do still have. Thanks for the article as it taught me many things.


over 2 years ago, said...

The putting things in mouth are not to keep you from swalloing the tung, it to prevent the tung from getting cut up by the teeth, I use my wallet biting into it when I feel a seizure coming on.


over 2 years ago, said...

Pretty accurate, had grand mal and petit mal most of my life. One started after an injury. So glad they tell you they don't swallow their tongue. Never put anything in someone's mouth if they are having a seizure.


over 2 years ago, said...

I was diagnosed with brain cancer/tumor/cyst in cerebellum and epilepsy in the right temporal lobe at the same time, 1997. I have grandmals and complex partial seizures and what they call nocturnal spikes when I sleep. My meds control the grandmals though not the others. The spikes keep me tired and the complex partials I've not had an aura I realize but I do have odd smells/odors then seizures then I'm upset or angry or some emotion I seem to find no need for. Of course my parents have always loved and accepted my medical, though they are now passed. I have lost my family now but my sister, and I have lost all my friends. I have been told I'm not the same as I use to be. Seems fear goes a long ways in what people will accept I guess. This article is very informative and would be great for those that don't care to even be around me to read and maybe learn. Thanks for listening.


over 2 years ago, said...

My doctor tells me I have pseudo seizures as well as grand mal seizures. I take keppra, but still really confused as to why my body will put me into grand mal and when heavily sedated they say I have pseudo seizures. Not even coherent then so how am I doing it


over 2 years ago, said...

I have seizures,they started when I was 60 yrs old . No known reason, I take medicine for them, I still have small ones.


over 2 years ago, said...

I just wanted to point out that #8 is TOTAL baloney. NOT every person with epilepsy has an "aura" before a seizure. 28 years and I've NEVER had an aura. I never know when they are about to happen. I usually know after-the-fact from the severe change in my mood, a sudden severe headache, or a witness telling me


over 2 years ago, said...

I am a 49 year old woman and I started having grand mal seizures when I was 15. I would like to know how many people like me have them only during sleep. Mine are controlled with tegretol and I thank God for that. Thank you for this article. I learned a great deal.


over 2 years ago, said...

first of all,,my adult son and daughter have siesures. he has gran mal and petit mal, my girl has petit mal.. i took them to a specialist as teens both started at 14 yrs old. there are over 300 types of seizures, an yes anyone can have them . they are hereditary, if there is a large gene poll on both sides of family. kids can be tested at 6 yrs old .my son has tried many types of medicine ,,on a bunch to control, but still has them.most seizures are a short circut on the brain,it really is.i think we need a page for learning more about it


over 2 years ago, said...

I notice when my hubby gets overwhelmed and when he is under alot of pressure when he has alot on his mind and when he is being pushed to the limit he has seizures...When he is relaxed and happy they are almost next to nothing but he does have breakthrough seizures from time to time