Any of us could potentially have a single epileptic seizure at some point in our lives. This is not the same as having epilepsy, which is a tendency to have seizures that start in the brain.
Epileptic seizures start in the brain. There are other types of seizures which may look like epileptic seizures but they do not start in the brain. Some seizures are caused by conditions such as low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) or a change to the way the heart is working. Some very young children have 'febrile convulsions' (jerking movements) when they have a high temperature. These are not the same as epileptic seizures.
On this page when we use the word ‘seizure’ we mean epileptic seizure.
Epilepsy Society is grateful to Dr F J Rugg-Gunn, Consultant Neurologist and Honorary Associate Professor Clinical Lead, Chalfont Centre for Epilepsy, who reviewed this information.
Absence seizures are more common in children than adults and can happen very frequently. During an absence a person becomes unconscious for a short time. They may look blank and stare, or their eyelids might flutter. They will not respond to what is happening around them. If they are walking they may carry on walking but will not be aware of what they are doing.
In focal aware seizures (FAS), previously called simple partial seizures, the person is conscious (aware and alert) and will usually know that something is happening and will remember the seizure afterwards.
Focal impaired awareness seizures (FIAS) affect a bigger part of one hemisphere (side) of the brain than focal aware seizures. This seizure was previously called complex partial seizures.
Myoclonic means ‘muscle jerk’. Muscle jerks are not always due to epilepsy (for example, some people have them as they fall asleep). Myoclonic seizures are brief but can happen in clusters (many happening close together in time) and often happen shortly after waking.
In an atonic seizure (or 'drop attack') the person’s muscles suddenly relax and they become floppy. If they are standing they often fall, usually forwards, and may injure the front of their head or face. Like tonic seizures, atonic seizures tend to be brief and happen without warning. With both tonic and atonic seizures people usually recover quickly, apart from possible injuries.
These are the seizures that most people think of as epilepsy. the person becomes unconscious their body goes stiff and if they are standing up they usually fall backwards. they jerk and shake as their muscles relax and tighten rhythmically.
The International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) announced some new names for seizures in May 2017. Our Education, Information and Support Services Manager explains the new seizure classifications and the reasons behind the changes. In this blog, you’ll find the new general outline of basic seizure classification.
There are a number of common misconceptions surrounding epilepsy and epilepsy terminology.
Epilepsy is not just one condition, but a group of many different 'epilepsies' with one thing in common: a tendency to have seizures that start in the brain.
Triggers are situations that can bring on a seizure in some people with epilepsy.
A new method to group seizures
In March 2017 the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE), a group of the world's leading epilepsy professionals, introduced a new method to group seizures.This gives doctors a more accurate way to describe a person's seizures, and helps them to prescribe the most appropriate treatments.
Seizures are divided into groups depending on where they start in the brain (onset), whether or not a person's awareness is affected and whether or not seizures involve other symptoms, such as movement.
Depending on where they start, seizures are described as being focal onset, generalised onset or unknown onset.
Your brain controls the way you function. Inside your brain, millions of nerve cells (neurones) pass messages via electrical signals to each other. During a seizure these electrical signals are disrupted and this affects how you feel or what you do while the seizure is happening.
Keeping a seizure diary can be useful to help you record when your seizures happen and to see whether there are any specific triggers for your seizures. Sometimes, known triggers can be avoided to help reduce the number of seizures.
If you have a seizure you may not remember what has happened. It can be helpful to have a description of what happened from someone who saw your seizure, to pass on to your GP or specialist.
Non-epileptic seizures (NES) or functional (dissociative) seizures may look similar to epileptic seizures but they are not caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. This guide will help you understand what non-epileptic seizures are, what causes them, how they are diagnosed and how they can be treated.