What is a seizure?
A seizure is a burst of or disturbance in electrical activity in the brain between brain cells that can cause a range of symptoms from stiffness, twitching, limpness, altered behavior, strange sensations, or altered states of awareness (such as a loss of consciousness). While many people think of a person having a seizure collapsing on the floor with uncontrolled shaking and twitching, in reality not all seizures are alike and symptoms can vary in type and severity. Usually, seizures last anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes. Seizures are more common than most people realize and can happen after strokes, head injuries, or meningitis infections. Seizure disorders, called epilepsy, are usually controlled with medication.
What are the different types of seizures?
There are two major types of seizures – focal onset and generalized.
- Focal Onset Seizure: This type of seizure starts in one area of the brain. It can spread, but generally does not encompass the entire brain. They are often caused by scars on the brain. During a focal seizure, the person may maintain consciousness or experience impaired awareness (staring into space and not responding normally to surroundings). Sometimes the symptoms of focal onset seizures can be mistaken for other neurological issues or mental illness. Symptoms of a Focal Onset seizure can include:
- Performing repetitive movements
- Experiencing a sudden change in emotions
- Perceiving senses differently (changes in the way things look, smell, taste, feel, or sound)
- Difficulty speaking
- Jerky, involuntary movements
- Seeing flashes of light
- Generalized Seizure: A generalized seizure encompasses all parts of the brain. They may start as a focal onset seizure and spread, or they may occur as a generalized onset (meaning in both sides at the same time). There are six types of generalized seizures:
- Petit Mal or Absence Seizures – start between ages 4- 6 years in children and are characterized by a short (5-10 second) period of staring into space. May happen hundreds of times a day, but children usually outgrow these.
- Myoclonic Seizures – usually do not result in a loss of consciousness and are characterized by sudden and brief spasms or jerking in arms and legs.
- Clonic Seizures – rhythmic jerking muscle movements usually in the face, neck, and arms on both sides of the body.
- Tonic-clonic or Grand-Mal Seizures – the most well-known kind of seizure, Tonic-clonic seizures can result in loss of consciousness, shaking, twitching, or stiffening of the body, biting of the tongue, or loss of bladder control.
- Atonic Seizures – result in a complete and sudden loss of muscle control that causes you to collapse.
- Tonic Seizures – result in a stiffening of the muscles, usually in the back, arms, and legs and can cause a loss of consciousness.
Is a seizure a medical emergency?
If you or someone you know is experiencing a seizure for the first time, you should see a doctor to determine the type and cause. Most seizures are not a medical emergency, unless you experience one of the following:
- The seizure continues for 5 minutes or more
- A second (or more) seizure follows immediately after the first
- The person remains unconscious or is not breathing after the seizure ends
- The person injures themselves during the seizure
- The person has a high fever
- The person is pregnant
- There is a chance the person has heat exhaustion
- The person has diabetes
Seizures in children
Seizures in children, just as with adults, can be one-off events or occur as a condition called epilepsy. Epilepsy is a brain condition that causes repeated seizures and varies in severity. A person is diagnosed with epilepsy after having 2 or more seizures with no discernible cause.
Seizures in children may be a result of scars from early fetal brain injury or brain growth, an issue with neurotransmitters, a tumor, a stroke, or brain damage from childhood illness or injury. But often, the direct cause of seizures can’t be found. If your child is diagnosed with epilepsy, it is likely they will be prescribed medication to help manage their seizures. Reasons for seeking medical or emergency medical attention are the same as in adults.
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