SymptomsBy Mayo Clinic staff
Because epilepsy is caused by abnormal activity in brain cells, seizures can affect any process your brain coordinates. A seizure can produce:
- Temporary confusion
- A staring spell
- Uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs
- Loss of consciousness or awareness
Symptoms vary depending on the type of seizure. In most cases, a person with epilepsy will tend to have the same type of seizure each time, so the symptoms will be similar from episode to episode.
Doctors generally classify seizures as either focal or generalized, based on how the abnormal brain activity begins.
When seizures appear to result from abnormal activity in just one part of the brain, they're called focal or partial seizures. These seizures fall into two categories.
- Simple focal seizures. These seizures don't result in loss of consciousness. They may alter emotions or change the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound. They may also result in involuntary jerking of part of the body, such as an arm or leg, and spontaneous sensory symptoms such as tingling, vertigo and flashing lights.
- Complex focal seizures. These seizures alter consciousness or awareness, causing you to lose awareness for a period of time. Complex focal seizures often result in staring and nonpurposeful movements — such as hand rubbing, chewing, swallowing or walking in circles.
Seizures that seem to involve all of the brain are called generalized seizures. Six types of generalized seizures exist.
- Absence seizures (also called petit mal). These seizures are characterized by staring and subtle body movement, and can cause a brief loss of awareness.
- Tonic seizures. These seizures cause stiffening of the muscles, generally those in your back, arms and legs and may cause you to fall to the ground.
- Clonic seizures. These types of seizures are associated with rhythmic, jerking muscle contractions, usually affecting the arms, neck and face.
- Myoclonic seizures. These seizures usually appear as sudden brief jerks or twitches of your arms and legs.
- Atonic seizures. Also known as drop attacks, these seizures cause you to lose normal muscle tone and suddenly collapse or fall down.
- Tonic-clonic seizures (also called grand mal). The most intense of all types of seizures, these are characterized by a loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, and sometimes loss of bladder control or biting your tongue.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical help if any of the following occurs:
- The seizure lasts more than five minutes.
- Breathing or consciousness does not return after the seizure stops.
- A second seizure follows immediately.
- You have a high fever.
- You're experiencing heat exhaustion.
- You're pregnant.
- You have diabetes.
- You've injured yourself during the seizure.
If you experience a seizure for the first time, seek medical advice.
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