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Tonic clonic seizures

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Tonic clonic seizures

(previously called grand mal)

These are the seizures most people think of as epilepsy.

At the start of the seizure:

  • the person becomes unconscious
  • their body goes stiff and if they are standing up they usually fall backwards
  • they may cry out
  • they may bite their tongue or cheek.

During the seizure:

  • they jerk and shake (convulse) as their muscles relax and tighten rhythmically
  • their breathing might be affected and become difficult or sound noisy
  • their skin may change colour and become very pale or bluish
  • they may wet themselves.

After the seizure (once the jerking stops):

  • their breathing and colour return to normal
  • they may feel tired, confused, have a headache or want to sleep.


Information produced: September 2018

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Other types of seizure

Tonic and atonic seizures

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.

Myoclonic 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.

Absence seizures

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.

Seizure types

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.

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