Epileptic seizures

Epilepsy is the most common neurological condition (affecting the brain), in the world. It is defined as a tendency to have recurrent seizures. In this section we'll only talk about epileptic seizures, although other types of seizures, not caused by epilepsy, also exist.

An epileptic seizure (sometimes called a fit, an attack, turn or blackout) happens when ordinary brain activity is suddenly disrupted. There are many different types of seizures, and a person with epilepsy can experience more than one type. Seizures can occur when you are awake or asleep.

Doctors classify seizures by how much of the brain is affected. There are:

  • focal (or partial) seizures – where only a small part of the brain is affected
  • generalised seizures – where most or all of the brain is affected
  • unknown onset - some seizures do not fit into these categories and are known as unclassified seizures.

During focal (partial) seizures the disturbance in brain activity begins in or involves one part of the brain. Focal seizures can be either 'simple', when consciousness is not affected, or 'complex', when consciousness is affected to some degree. While people might have similar types of seizures, everyone has their own experiences of them. Many of those interviewed described their experiences of simple focal seizures. Sometimes simple focal seizures develop into other sorts of seizures and so are often referred to as a 'warning' or 'aura'. 

In complex focal seizures, consciousness is affected and so the person might have limited or no memory of the seizure. The seizures might be characterised by a change in awareness as well as automatic movements such as fiddling with clothes or objects, mumbling or making chewing movements, or wandering about and general confusion. One woman described her experiences of having complex focal (partial) seizures and what happens during these attacks.

In generalised seizures the whole of the brain is involved and consciousness is lost. These often occur with no warning and the person will have no memory of the event. Tonic-clonic convulsive seizures are the most easily recognised type of seizure. They are sometimes called a 'grand mal' seizure, although this term is no longer used by doctors. Several people described their experiences of tonic-clonic seizures. One woman explained how she felt before having a tonic-clonic seizure. Another discussed some of the difficulties with incontinence following her seizures.

One woman explained that she occasionally had atonic seizures or drop attacks. These involve a sudden loss of muscle tone, causing the person to fall. Other people discussed having absence seizures. These are sometimes called 'petit mal' by some people. They involve a brief interruption of consciousness during which the person becomes unresponsive.

Some seizure patterns might not fit into any of the above categories or might include elements of different seizures. Some people experience seizures only during sleep. These are called nocturnal seizures and can be focal or generalised. One woman described how her night seizures changed after her drug treatment was altered. 

Most seizures last for the same length of time for each person and usually stop of their own accord. However, in some circumstances seizures are not self-limiting and do not stop or one seizure occurs after another with no recovery period in between. This situation is known as 'status epilepticus'. If it occurs with a tonic-clonic seizure it is a medical emergency. This woman recalled a status epilepticus episode she had on one occasion. 

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Many people also discussed their feelings of tiredness and confusion after a seizure. How long these feelings lasted often depended on the type and intensity of the seizure.

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Last reviewed May 2016.
Last updated May 2016.


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