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Quick Facts

Seizure Disorders

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What is a seizure disorder?

Seizures are changes in the brain's electrical signals. A seizure disorder is a problem that causes a person to have seizures.

The brain is made up of nerve cells. Nerve cells talk to each other through electrical signals. Seizures happen if too many nerve cells send signals all at once.

During a seizure, a person may:

  • Fall down and start shaking

  • Become unconscious or confused

Usually after a few minutes, the nerve cells start to behave normally and the person returns to normal.

Call 911 for emergency medical help or go to the hospital right away if a person has a seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes.

  • Medicines can help prevent seizures

  • Epilepsy is one type of seizure disorder

  • In children, a high fever can sometimes cause seizures (febrile seizures)

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a seizure disorder that causes you to keep having seizures.

Some people who have a seizure will never have another and don't have epilepsy. People with epilepsy have many seizures, but the number of seizures varies. Some people with epilepsy have only 1 or 2 seizures a year. Some have seizures every day.

What causes a seizure disorder?

Most of the time doctors don't know what makes a person have a seizure disorder.

If your first seizure happens when you're a baby, the cause is usually different than if your first seizure happens when you're an adult.

If the first seizure happens before age 2, common causes are:

  • High fever

  • Problems with the body's chemical balance, called metabolic disorders

  • A birth defect of the brain

  • Lack of oxygen during birth

  • Use of certain drugs by the mother while pregnant

If the first seizure happens after age 18, common causes are:

  • Brain tumor

  • Suddenly stopping heavy drinking of alcohol (withdrawal)

If you have only 1 seizure, it's most often caused by:

  • Prescription medicines

  • Lack of sleep

  • Brain infection (such as meningitis)

  • High fever

  • Abnormal heartbeat

  • Low blood levels of oxygen or sugar

Seizures can be caused by flashing lights or video games (reflex epilepsy), but this is rare.

What happens during a seizure?

You may have symptoms before a seizure (called an aura). You may notice:

  • Strange smell

  • Strange taste

  • Feeling of déjà vu (a feeling like something happening right now has happened before)

  • Feeling like you're about to have a seizure

During a seizure, you aren't aware of what's going on and can't talk or respond. However, you're still breathing.

During a seizure, you may:

  • Fall down and start shaking all over

  • Stare blankly or become confused

  • Go limp and pass out

  • Not be able to talk

  • Arch your back and look stiff

  • Lose control of your bladder or bowels, causing you to urinate (pee) or have a bowel movement (poop)

Sometimes convulsions (muscle jerks and spasms) affect only part of the body, such as the arm and leg on one side.

After the seizure, you may have feel a little confused for an hour or two and have symptoms like:

  • Headache

  • Sore muscles

  • Feeling very weak and tired

If you have a seizure while you're driving or climbing a ladder, you may hurt yourself or others.

What will doctors do after I have a seizure?

Doctors do different things depending on whether you've had seizures before. If you've had seizures before, you usually don't need as many tests.

If this was your first seizure, doctors will need to find out what caused it. Doctors will examine you and ask lots of questions and usually do tests, such as:

  • An electroencephalography (EEG), a painless, safe test that measures your brain’s electrical signals

  • Blood or urine tests

  • An electrocardiogram (ECG), a quick, painless, safe test that measures your heart’s electric pathways and the speed and pattern of your heartbeats

  • MRI (an imaging test that uses a strong magnetic field to create a detailed picture of your brain)

  • A spinal tap, if doctors suspect a brain infection

If you've had seizures before and doctors have already checked you out thoroughly, you may not need tests. Your doctor will usually want to see you and do tests if:

  • Your seizure lasted longer than your typical seizure

  • Your seizure was different than your typical seizure

  • You didn't come back to normal as quickly as you usually do

  • You have a fever

  • You hurt yourself

If you take medicine to prevent seizures, doctors usually do a blood test to see if there's enough medicine in your bloodstream.

Doctors will diagnose you with a seizure disorder if you’ve had 2 or more seizures at different times.

How do doctors treat seizure disorders?

If you're having a seizure while at the doctor or hospital, doctors may:

  • Give you medicine through a vein (IV) to stop a seizure, if your seizure lasts more than 5 minutes

If doctors can tell what causes your seizures, they'll treat the cause.

To prevent seizures, doctors will:

  • Have you take anticonvulsant medicine every day

  • Tell you to avoid alcohol, drugs, and stress, if these trigger your seizures

It's very important to take your anticonvulsant medicine the way your doctor prescribed. Not taking your medicine is a common reason for having a seizure.

If you've had a seizure within the past 6 months, doctors usually recommend that you NOT:

  • Operate power tools

  • Climb

  • Swim

  • Take baths in a bathtub

  • Drive

Once you've gone 6 months without a seizure, you can usually start doing these things again.

What should I do if someone is having a seizure?

  • Don't panic—most seizures stop on their own in a minute or two

  • Keep the person away from things that could cause injury (such as stairs or sharp objects)

  • Loosen tight clothing around the person's neck

  • Roll the person onto one side

  • Put a pillow under the person’s head

  • Stay with the person until the seizure is over

  • Call a doctor

Despite what you might have heard:

  • DON'T put a spoon or anything else in the person’s mouth

  • DON'T try to hold the person's tongue