Epilepsy Symptoms

Epilepsy symptoms include recurrent episodes of seizures. Seizures are abnormal, uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. Seizures in patients with epilepsy can affect many areas of the brain and can present in many different ways symptomatically. In general, most types of seizures involve the cortex of the cerebrum, the forebrain, primarily.

Aura: Many patients who experience recurrent seizures describe a vague aura prior to the onset of each seizure. In some cases these include abnormal sensations such as a subtle smell, taste or feeling. Often it is hard for the patient to describe this epilepsy symptom as it can be a quite vague feeling.

Epilepsy Symptoms During a Seizure: During an actual seizure, the symptoms experienced by the patient can vary quite dramatically from seizure type to the next. In general, the abnormal, intense electrical activity in the brain can lead to various neurological manifestations including sensory disturbances (including sensory hallucinations), alteration or loss of consciousness, drop attacks, and motor convulsions. While the classic generalized tonic-clonic seizure is with full body convulsions is the most familiar to the general public, there are many types of seizures which do not include any convulsions or may only involve part of the body. Seizures can also vary quite dramatically in duration. While some last only seconds, some may last many minutes and even continue for a long time as in the case of status epilepticus.

Types of Seizures: The specific epilepsy symptoms a patient experiences depends partly on the type of seizure and the location it occurs in the brain. Below are a list of some of the most common types of seizures:

  • Generalized Seizures: These are seizures that simultaneously involve both sides of the brain, originating or rapidly spreading to involve the entire cerebral cortex. They can present in various ways but always involve some alteration of consciousness or loss of consciousness during the seizure. Patients are unaware of what happens during the seizure and have no direct memory of anything that happened during the seizure.
    • Grand Mal (Tonic-Clonic): Traditionally called grand mal seizures, now generally referred to as generalized tonic-clonic seizures, these are a form of generalized seizure which leads to loss of consciousness as well as convulsions. The typical tonic-clonic seizure starts with a tonic phase in which the patient looses consciousness and has a generalized increase in muscle tone, often causing an arching of the back and extension of the head and limbs. This is then followed by a clonic phase characterized by convulsions of the entire body.
    • Petit Mal (Absence): Called either a petit mal or absense (from the French, pronounced ob-sawnce) seizure, these generalized seizures are often under-diagnosed in childhood as they may present simply as staring spells where the child appears to just "zone out", staring straight ahead and not responding to their environment and stimuli. Although they may appear awake, there is an alteration or loss of consciousness so that the patient is not experiencing anything during the seizure. Although the epilepsy symptoms of these seizures do not include convulsions, there can be subtle "automatisms" during the seizure, such as lip smacking.
    • Infantile Spasms: This type of generalized seizure can occur in very young children with epilepsy. They are usually brief, characterized by sudden bending forward and stiffening of the body, arms and legs. They can occur in clusters and may occur many times a day.
  • Partial Seizures: These seizures do not include the entire brain at the same time as generalized seizures do. These partial seizures then vary depending on which part of the brain is involved during the seizure. If sensory parts of the brain are involved then the epilepsy symptoms may include sensory disturbances. If motor areas of the brain are involved then convulsions of that part of the body, on one side, may occur. For example, the patient may have convulsions of only one arm or leg.
    • Simple Partial: Simple partial seizures are characterized by a normal level of consciousness during the seizure. These patients are aware of their surroundings and of the seizure and can even converse during the seizure which can include sensory and/or motor symptoms.
    • Complex Partial: Complex partial seizures include some alteration or loss of consciousness. Although only part of the brain is involved, the patient looses consciousness and is unaware of their surroundings and has no memory of the event.
    • Secondary Generalization: Some seizures start in one part of the brain, a partial seizure, but then spread from that point to involve the rest of the brain, termed secondary generalization. Therefore, the symptoms may initially include partial seizure type manifestations but after seconds or minutes the patient completely looses consciousness and has generalized seizure activity akin to the generalized seizures described above.

Learn about treatment of epilepsy and drugs for epilepsy.

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Important Note: This site is not intended to offer medical advice. Every patient is different, and only your personal physician can help to counsel you about what is best for your situation. What we offer is general reference information about various disorders and treatments for your education.

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