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What are the Different Types of Seizures?

By Deborah Walker
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Generalized, partial, and psychogenic non-epileptic are the three broad types of seizures. Generalized and partial seizures are differentiated by the location of the abnormal brain activity, or lack thereof, and the person's awareness during the seizure. During a generalized seizure, which includes the grand mal, petit mal and other subtypes, both sides of the brain send out a cascade of abnormal electrical impulses and the individual loses consciousness. Partial seizures occur when abnormal activity is localized to one area of the brain and care classified as either simple or complex. Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES) are psychological in nature and may be brought on by stress.

A grand mal, or tonic-clonic, is one of the most dramatic types of seizures. During this type of generalized seizure, a person loses consciousness and collapses. In the tonic part of the seizure, the body becomes stiff and remains so for 30-60 seconds. This may be followed by the clonic part of the seizure where stiffness is replaced by uncontrollable jerking. The incident may last one to five minutes.

While unconscious, there may be loss of bowel or bladder control, jaw clenching, or difficulty breathing. Sometimes the skin turns blue. Extreme fatigue almost always follows a grand mal seizure.

Petit mal seizures are also know as absence seizures and can easily be mistaken for inattentiveness. In a generalized petit mal seizure, the individual abruptly stops activity and blankly stares for several seconds. When the seizure is over, he resumes what he was doing and may not even realize that a seizure occurred. Petit mal seizures may occur at random throughout the day or night.

Other generalized types of seizures include myoclonic, clonic, tonic, and atonic. Myoclonic seizures cause unconsciousness and sudden, sporadic jerking on one side of the body. When both sides of the body are involved, it is a clonic seizure. During a tonic seizure, there is loss of consciousness and the body becomes very rigid. An atonic seizure causes a loss of consciousness and muscle tone.

While experiencing a simple partial seizure, the person remains awake and aware of his surroundings, but cannot control his body. Simple partial seizures may cause motor, autonomic, sensory, or psychological symptoms. Movements such as jerking, rigidness, muscle spasms, or uncontrollable head turning often occur during a simple motor seizure. Autonomic seizures impact the functions of the body out of a person's conscious control. Symptoms may include a racing heart, loss of bladder control, upset stomach, or diarrhea.

If one or more of the senses are affected, the person is having a simple partial sensory seizure. He may have particularly acute hearing or an altered sense of smell or sight. During the simple psychological seizure, memory or emotional disturbances may occur. The individual may experience a strong sense of deja vu or may suddenly be overcome by strong emotions.

A complex partial seizure impairs awareness and causes involuntary but coordinated movements. The movements may include fidgeting, chewing, or lip smacking. Sometimes what begins as a partial seizure evolves into a generalized seizure.

Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures appear similar to epileptic types of seizures, but are not caused by abnormal brain activity. PNES can be brought on by stress or other triggers. This type of seizure is usually seen in young women who may also have major depression or an anxiety disorder. Those with this type of seizure are not "faking it" to get attention. With treatment, many people can gain some measure of control over the different types of seizures and lead a normal life.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006181 — On Feb 10, 2022

I have seizures. I have lost jobs, been hurt, and been hospitalized many times. Nobody can tell me why I have them. I take 1000 mg of Keppra a day, plus meds for my kidneys. I have worked all my life and all the jobs I've had, I can't do anymore. Can anyone give me employment ideas?

By anon932360 — On Feb 12, 2014

My wife has told me that Ive had seizures while I'm driving. She says that I start 'chewing'. She says that she would start smacking my thigh and calling out to me with no response from me, and all this while I'm driving, stopping when lights are red, going when green, etc.

By anon221298 — On Oct 11, 2011

My daughter has between 10 and 15 absences between breakfast and going to school, and from when she gets home to before she goes to bed most nights. She apologizes straight away afterward, or gets scared because she doesn't know where she is.

By anon221295 — On Oct 11, 2011

My daughter has undiagnosed petit mals. We are still awaiting the hospital to refer her. She has walked into the road twice and almost been hit by a car both times. She has them worse when she seems stressed but has them also when she is not stressed. Help. Any advice?

By anon134708 — On Dec 15, 2010

My daughter is being tested for petit mal. She had an attack today and went rigid in my arms, then screamed out for me in a panic!

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