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What is a Seizure?

A seizure is caused by a surge of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. This activity can be caused by many different things that can affect the brain. In many cases, we do not know why a particular person has seizures. Some seizures are barely noticeable while others are disabling.

There are many conditions that can mimic seizures such as:

  • Passing out
  • Stress or non-epileptic events
  • Movement disorders

Your doctor will want a detailed description of what happens from the start to the end of your events to ensure they are seizures. This is the most important step in determining if you have seizures. If it is unclear what is happening based on this information, your doctor will likely want to order brain imaging, an EEG test (or electroencephalogram), or bring you in to the hospital to see if you have another event.

Seizures generally fall into two main groups:

  • Focal seizures. Also known as partial seizures, focal seizures happen in just one part of the brain.
  • Generalized seizures. These seizures are the result of abnormal activity on both sides of the brain.

Most seizures last from about 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Depending on the age of the person, these seizures do not cause lasting harm. If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, and the individual loses consciousness or does not wake up, the seizure is then considered a medical emergency.

If you have had only one seizure without a known cause, there is a less than 1 in 2 chance that you will have another one. If you have more seizures, the second seizure usually happens within 6 months. If you have a clear cause for your seizure that puts you at risk for future seizures or if you have two or more seizures not directly caused by other medical problems (i.e. unprovoked), then you have epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a chronic (long-term) condition and involves repeated seizures that start for no clear reason (unprovoked). A person is diagnosed with epilepsy if they have 2 or more unprovoked seizures or 1 unprovoked seizure with a cause that will likely make them have more (such as a physical change in the brain or electrical abnormalities).

Often the cause of epilepsy is unknown. The diagnosis of epilepsy does not say anything about how seizures look or make a person feel. It also does not say anything about the cause of the seizures.

Diagnosis and Tests

To see if you are at risk for more seizures or to determine what types of seizures you have, your doctor may recommend imaging (such as a brain CT or MRI) to look for physical changes in your brain or an EEG (electroencephalogram) test to look for electrical changes in your brain.

If you are diagnosed with epilepsy, your doctor will likely recommend anti-seizure medications to prevent you from having more.

Having seizures and epilepsy can affect people’s relationships, work, driving, and safety. Often these problems cause more difficulties than the seizures themselves. Many people with seizures have problems with their mood including depression and anxiety due to these stressors or even due to how the seizures affect their brain. It is important to treat mood as this will help control your seizures as well.

If you are worried about depression or anxiety, make sure to talk to your doctor or nurse about your concerns. Here are many pleases to get help in your local community and support groups can be found through the resources listed below.

Support and Resources

For information on seizures and epilepsy or to find resources to help in your care or the care of your loved one, please visit the following trusted websites:

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