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Categories > Brain and Nervous System Disorders > Epilepsy and seizures

What you should know about seizure disorders

  • Irene walked around in a daze, her mouth moving up and down in a chewing motion. A sudden fear overwhelmed her, and she began tugging at her clothing.
  • Brian knew immediately what was wrong: Growing anxiety, a funny taste in his mouth and nausea were a warning to move to a clear, carpeted area where seconds later he would drop unconscious to the ground.
  • Joanne spent the night caring for her 9-month-old son. Matt had been running a high fever, and now his little body was making strange jerking motions. Even more terrifying, she seemed powerless to calm him.

What do Irene, Brian and Matt have in common? They’re all experiencing one of the more than 20 known types of seizure. Surprised? You probably are if you thought seizures were violent convulsions that struck only those with epilepsy (also known as seizure disorder). In fact, while epilepsy, typified by recurrent seizures, affects more than an estimated two and a half million Americans, anyone can have a seizure under the right conditions. Head injuries, strokes and infectious diseases are among the possible triggers. In about 3 to 4 percent of young children, a high fever will bring on a non-epilepsy-related seizure, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. And for people with full-fledged seizure disorder, flashing lights, loud noises, eating, sex or even a particular thought can cause a seizure.

The most common types of seizures

  • Generalized tonic-clonic—or grand mal—seizures occur when the brain is swamped with extra electrical energy. The seizure begins with a cry; the person falls to the ground, his or her muscles stiffen and rapid jerking movements begin. Often breathing is shallow, and sometimes bladder or bowel control is lost. After a few minutes, consciousness returns, but the person feels exhausted, with no memory of the seizure.
  • Absence—or petit mal—seizures are so subtle they’re easily mistaken for daydreaming. Absence seizures are most common in children: Typically, the child loses awareness of his or her surroundings for just a few seconds. Blinking, chewing, head-turning or arm-waving often accompany the seizure.
  • Simple partial seizures sometimes begin with an eerie sensation known as an “aura,” a sort of warning during which the victim may see, hear or smell things. It normally gives the person just enough time to move to a safe area before losing consciousness. Jerking movements or tingling in one part of the body may follow.
  • Complex partial seizures are commonly preceded by an aura as well. When the aura subsides, the victim enters a trancelike state, roaming aimlessly, making chewing motions, fidgeting with clothing or, in extreme cases, disrobing or running in fear. The seizure ends after about three minutes, leaving the person disoriented and with no memory of the attack.

Diagnosis and treatment

A careful medical history, a detailed account of a typical seizure and an electroencephalograph help a doctor determine whether someone has seizure disorder. In as many as 85 percent of cases, medication can control recurrent seizures. If medication fails and the seizures have been traced to a small area of the brain, the area may be surgically removed. Finally, a high-fat diet, prescribed primarily for children, may control seizures when medication and surgery haven’t helped.