3D modeled image of a brain neuron.


Normally, the brain generates electrical impulses in a continuous, orderly fashion. When someone has epilepsy, the brain’s electrical rhythms signal abnormally and excessively, causing seizures that may affect the person’s movements, consciousness or sensations.1

There are many different types of seizures that are divided into two main categories: generalized seizures and partial seizures. The difference between the two main seizure categories is how and where they begin in the brain.1

Generalized seizures begin with abnormal neuronal activity, or an electrical discharge, on both sides of the brain. There are many different types of generalized seizures—from simple absence seizures that cause a person to stare into space for a few seconds, to tonic-clonic seizures where a person loses consciousness, their muscles stiffen and their arms and legs jerk rapidly—generally for one to three minutes.1, 2

Partial, or focal, seizures are the most common type of seizure seen in people with epilepsy. They begin with an electrical discharge that takes place in just one part of the brain.

Simple partial seizures affect a person’s muscle activity, senses, bodily functions or the way they think, feel or experience things. Complex partial seizures include what is known as “automatisms,” where the affected person performs purposeless actions like smacking their lips, fumbling or picking at the air or their clothing. Although it is less common, they may also laugh, cry, scream or repeat words or phrases.3, 4

While two-thirds of all epileptic seizures do not have an identifiable cause, the remainder may be triggered by oxygen deprivation during childbirth, brain infections, traumatic brain or head injury, paralytic stroke, other neurologic diseases, brain tumors or certain genetic disorders.5 An epileptic seizure may be triggered by specific events, such as forgetting to take medication, stress or anxiety, lack of sleep or missing meals.6

To help with the diagnosis, your doctor will perform a physical examination, take a complete medical history, ask for specific details about the seizure, and conduct a few tests, such as an EEG (an electrical study of the brain), a CT scan, a PET and an MRI. Your doctor may also take a blood test or perform neurological, developmental and behavioral tests.7

The primary treatment for epilepsy is antiepileptic drugs that help control the seizures, rather than cure the underlying condition. Other treatments include surgery, vagus nerve stimulation, biofeedback and a ketogenic diet, which should only be adopted under the care of a physician. Be sure to talk to your doctor or neurologist about the best treatment for you.5


1. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Patient Information. Epilepsy. http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Epilepsy.aspx. Accessed August 21, 2014.
2. Epilepsy Foundation. Absence Seizures. http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/types-seizures/absence-seizures. Accessed August 21, 2014.
3. Epilepsy Foundation. Simple Partial Seizures. http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/types-seizures/simple-partial-seizures. Accessed August 21, 2014.
4. Epilepsy Foundation. Complex Partial Seizures. http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/types-seizures/complex-partial-seizures. Accessed August 21, 2014.
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epilepsy. Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.cdc.gov/epilepsy/basics/faqs.htm. Accessed August 21, 2014.
6. British Epilepsy Association. Some Common Seizure Triggers. https://www.epilepsy.org.uk/info/triggers. Accessed August 21, 2014.
7. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Seizures and Epilepsy: Hope Through Research. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/epilepsy/detail_epilepsy.htm. Accessed August 21, 2014.

Information provided is for general background purposes and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment by a trained professional. You should always consult your physician about any healthcare questions you may have, especially before trying a new medication, diet, fitness program, or approach to healthcare issues.
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