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Symptoms and Signs of Epilepsy

Doctor's Notes on Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological condition in which a person has recurrent seizures. A seizure is an abnormal surge of electrical activity in the brain that results in a temporary disturbance of motor, sensory, or mental function. There are different types of seizures, depending primarily on what part of the brain is involved.

Symptoms of generalized seizures involve the whole body and may include crying out or making some sound, stiffening for a few seconds, then rhythmic movements of the arms and legs. Other symptoms include open eyes, the appearance of not breathing, loss of urine, gradual return to consciousness, and confusion following the seizure. Symptoms of partial or focal seizures may involve only parts of the body such as rhythmic movements or jerking of a hand, strange sensations, small repetitive movements such as picking at clothes or lip smacking, and a dazed or confused appearance. Symptoms of absence or petit mal seizures are brief and may include impaired consciousness, blank staring, or repetitive blinking or other small movements.

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Epilepsy Symptoms

Almost any type of behavior that happens repetitively may represent a seizure.

  • Generalized seizures: All areas of the brain (the cortex) are involved in a generalized seizure. Sometimes these are referred to as grand mal seizures.
    • To the observer, the person experiencing such a seizure may cry out or make some sound, stiffen for some seconds, then have rhythmic movements of the arms and legs. Often the rhythmic movements slow before stopping.
    • Eyes are generally open.
    • The person may not appear to be breathing. The person is often breathing deeply after an episode.
    • The return to consciousness is gradual and should occur within a few moments.
    • Loss of urine is common.
    • Often people will be confused briefly after a generalized seizure.
  • Partial or focal seizures: Only part of the brain is involved, so only part of the body is affected. Depending on the part of the brain having abnormal electrical activity, symptoms may vary.
    • If the part of the brain controlling movement of the hand is involved, for example, then perhaps only the hand may show rhythmic movements or jerking.
    • If other areas of the brain are involved, symptoms might include strange sensations or small repetitive movements such as picking at clothes or lip smacking.
    • Sometimes the person with a partial seizure appears dazed or confused. This may represent a partial complex seizure. The term "complex" is used by doctors to describe a person who is between being fully alert and unconscious.
  • Absence or petit mal seizures: These are most common in childhood.
    • Impairment of consciousness is present with the person often staring blankly.
    • Repetitive blinking or other small movements may be present.
    • Typically, these seizures are brief, lasting only seconds. Some people may have many of these in a day.
    • Other seizure types exist particularly in very small children.

Epilepsy Causes

Healthy people may have seizures under certain circumstances. If the seizures have a known cause, the condition is referred to as secondary or symptomatic epilepsy. Some of the more common causes include the following:

Epilepsy Symptoms, Causes and Treatment Slideshow

Epilepsy Symptoms, Causes and Treatment Slideshow

Epilepsy is a group of related disorders in the brain's electrical systems that are characterized by a tendency to cause recurrent seizures. Seizures cause changes in movement, behavior, sensation, or awareness, including loss of consciousness or convulsions, which last from a few seconds to a few minutes in most individuals. Seizures may occur in children and adults.

Epilepsy is not a form of mental illness or intellectual dysfunction.

REFERENCE:

Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

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