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What is a Seizure?

By Stefanie Spikell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A seizure is a medical event or episode in which the body convulses or shakes uncontrollably, usually owing to a problem or spasm within the nervous system. Seizures can range from the minor — a brief hand tremor, for instance — to the very serious, often involving prolonged unconsciousness and temporary paralysis. All originate from the brain, but can be triggered by a range of different things. A medical condition known as epilepsy is often one of the most common root causes.

Main Causes

People who experience regular seizures are usually diagnosed with epilepsy, which is characterized by brain synapse problems. Epileptic seizures are usually categorized as “partial” or “generalized” according to their severity. A person who has very serious seizures, even if only rarely, is often considered to be epileptic.

It is not uncommon for a person to experience occasional, usually mild seizures outside of epilepsy, however. High fevers are often to blame, particularly in children. Diabetics who experience extremely low blood sugar may also experience them. Similarly, pregnant women who have extremely high blood pressure may be at risk, as well; this condition is known as eclampsia, and usually requires close medical monitoring. Though a seizure may pose no long-term threat to the mother, the developing fetus risks reduced oxygen supply, which can lead to brain damage or even death. Brain tumors and blood clots may also be the cause, though these instances are much rarer.

Partial Seizures

Seizures that happen outside of epilepsy are usually considered “partial,” though some epileptics may also experience this sort of seizure from time to time. Partial seizures begin in a discreet area of the brain and usually cause no change in consciousness. The patient may have weakness, numbness and experience unusual smells or tastes. Sometimes, there is twitching of the muscles or limbs, head turning from side to side, paralysis, sight changes or vertigo.

Complex partial seizures are often more serious. These occur in the temporal lobe and consciousness is usually affected. The patient often has a change in his ability to interact with the environment and may exhibit automatic, unconscious behaviors such as walking in a circle, sitting and standing repeatedly, or smacking his lips.

Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures typically cause the most concern, and take place in larger areas of the brain. The most serious are known as grand mal seizures; these include specific movements of the arms and legs or face and may occur with a loss of consciousness, often preceded by yelling or crying. Patients also typically experience an aura, which is an unusual feeling that often acts as a precursor or warning of what is to come. The patient then abruptly falls and begins to jerk, and may become incontinent or drool or bite his tongue. This type of seizure usually lasts between 5 and 20 minutes, and the patient often awakens in a confused state and is likely to suffer prolonged weakness and disorientation.

Petit mal seizures include a brief loss of consciousness, but there is not usually any associated motor dysfunction or aura. Sometimes it just seems that the person is briefly stopping what he was doing, staring for a few seconds, and then continuing with his activity. The patient does not usually have any memory of the event.

Prevention and Medical Attention

It can be difficult for individuals without medical training to diagnose seizures, and people who think they may have experienced such an episode are usually advised to seek immediate medical attention. Most of the root causes are highly treatable, particularly if the condition is caught early on. Epilepsy, for instance, is usually very easy to manage with specialized medication. Doctors and other experts may also be able to counsel patients on ways to avoid triggers, such as alcohol or sleep deprivation, that may make seizures more likely.

Caring for Someone Having a Seizure

Bystanders are often frightened when they witness someone having a seizure. In most cases, the best thing to do is time the seizure from beginning to end. Most medical professionals say that, if unconsciousness or other symptoms persist for more than 3 minutes, emergency medics should be called immediately.

People who see someone having a seizure should also try to protect the individual from injury. They should move sharp or dangerous objects out of the person’s path, and help the person to the ground from a chair or standing position, if possible. Some sources advise placing solid objects in the seizing person’s mouth to help keep him from biting their own tongue, but this is generally not advised. Medical experts usually caution that this can actually induce choking or oxygen loss, which can make the situation worse. It is usually best for witnesses to wait the seizure out, then help comfort or care for the person once things have settled down.

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Discussion Comments

By anon926178 — On Jan 16, 2014

Once when I was very sick, I had a seizure in the bath. My older brother said he could hear a "bumping" noise coming from the bathroom so he came to see what it was. Sure enough, it was me convulsing. He describes it as "one of the most frightening experiences of his life". Apparently my skin was grey, my eyes were rolled back, I had foam coming out of my mouth and I was jerking violently. He carefully got me out of the bath and lay me on my side on the floor while mum called an ambulance. It's the only seizure I have ever had.

By amypollick — On Sep 06, 2013

@Crystalnikki: I don't think you had a seizure. I think you nearly died from being strangled. Your tongue felt swollen because it *was.* The act of strangling you forced the blood to your tongue, making it swell.

You were probably less than 60 seconds from death. Your "poor" boyfriend nearly murdered you. You were seconds away from being a homicide victim. If it was a seizure, it was caused from a no oxygen getting to your brain.

Please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline and get some good counsel on how to deal with this. It's toll free. I know your boyfriend is probably so very sorry right now, and can't tell you enough how he's sorry, but this *will* happen again. Domestic violence is rarely a one-time event. And yes, if your boyfriend strangled you, it's domestic violence. It's also aggravated assault and in some states, attempted murder.

The next time, his anger might be so overpowering, he might not stop choking you before you're dead. I know it's not easy to hear this about someone you care for, but you need to take action. Nothing you said or did warrants being nearly strangled to death. It's not because you *provoke* him. It's because he has a problem. Please get some help. Good luck.

By Crystalnikki — On Sep 06, 2013

Yesterday, my boyfriend strangled me. I remember being on my back looking up and seeing him. He looked scared. I was shaking and couldn’t speak. My head was violently shaking and my arms and legs were also. I had no control. It was like a dream. I was so scared. I thought I was dying. I began to come to, and he began to yell at me. I then remembered he was just strangling me. He wrapped his hands around my neck and lifted me high in the air. My feet were high off the ground (I realized it was because he had strangled me that I had the seizure like experience.)

I was on the floor when I was able to regain control of my arms and body. The shaking had stopped and dizziness and dream like state was gone and I began to cry and try to speak. My tongue felt huge in my mouth. I think I bit my tongue almost off.

So there I was, barely able to breathe, looking up at my boyfriend, who was screaming at me. I began to sob and beg him to stop, and tell him something was wrong. I begged him to stop. I was so freaked. I screamed at him, telling him he almost killed me.

My question is: Did I have a seizure as a result of him strangling me? It was positively a seizure.

I remember feeling so scared. My eyes were open and I saw my boyfriend with the most worried look on his face. I couldn’t speak. I was violently shaking. The dizziness was stunning. I realized I was dying. And my poor boyfriend was going to watch me die. You see, I didn’t realize until he started yelling, that in fact, he had just attacked me and choked me. It was bizarre. I felt like humiliated and terrified, but couldn’t speak. I could only look at him and violently tremble. I thought I was dying and my poor boyfriend was witnessing this.

It all happened so fast. It hurts to swallow. My tongue is cut from my teeth on both sides. My neck is so sore. I can barely move.

By anon347239 — On Sep 05, 2013

I've been sick the past couple weeks, and woke up early in the morning coughing uncontrollably. I remember sitting upright in my bed, then the next thing I remember, I was sitting on the bed, shaking my bedside table violently with both arms, making funny noises, and the front of my shirt is wet. I came to at this moment and stopped, but everything that was on the table was now on the floor and I have no memory of that. I'm worried what it is and it's the first time anything like this has ever happened to me.

By anon343673 — On Aug 01, 2013

For those of you asking if you had a seizure, trust me, you probably did not. You would not feel like you "swallowed" your tongue. You may bite your tongue off, which I have done many a time. Bystanders should crouch down and place the seizing victim's head in the their lap with the head tilted to the side to avoid choking.

If you had a seizure, your abdominal muscles and every other muscle would feel like you had worked out for a month at a time. You would then most likely fall asleep for five to seven hours afterward. You may even soil your drawers. You would not feel your eyes rolling into the back of your head, nor be aware that any of this was happening.

Never "restrain" an epileptic, because you can cause more damage than good! Do not ever put anything in their mouth as you can cause damage to their teeth or even your fingers or other extremities. If you hear someone yell out, it is the air escaping from their lungs, usually followed by extending rigidity in their arms and legs, so look out, or you might get hit at this point. They will then fall, if they are not already sitting, or lying down.

It is scary but don't stand by and watch. Ask many questions to help bring them to. If the seizure persists for longer than three minutes, or there is blood, make sure you call for medical help. Many epileptics would prefer to recover at home as there is not much a hospital will do for them.

If you feel they have hit their head or injured themselves, also call for help. I have severe epilepsy and am currently awaiting a seizure alert dog so I can go out safely so I stop walking in front of oncoming traffic. If you are afraid, look up Tonic/Clonic online so you get an idea of what you are looking for. Thank you so much, and remember, pay it forward. --B

By anon333882 — On May 08, 2013

I am a person suffering from this, but in my case it only happens to me mostly once in a month and sometimes it happens once every two months or twice in a month.

I had all possible checks done, including an MRI and all the doctors say that I am just having small strokes and there is no solution for a cure. He says I have to take daily medicine for my whole life.

By anon316074 — On Jan 26, 2013

I coughed until I passed out, and when I came to my wife asked me what I was doing. I noticed my legs were moving violently. I was able to stop them. Did I have a seizure?

By anon298192 — On Oct 18, 2012

Did I have a seizure? I went to pick up a friend and got mad for no reason -- real mad like I never get, calling people names, etc.

About 30 minutes after that, I was sitting and I felt something weird, like my muscles in my hands and legs felt really stiff and I couldn't talk correctly, and it felt like I was going to swallow my tongue.

I felt like i was going to die right there, but I said to myself it is just a panic attack. I don't know if my eyes rolled back, but for three minutes or so it was hard to speak because my tongue was twisted, my hands were twisted and my eyes were closed. It was so hard trying to open them because they were twitching heavily.

I don't get panic attacks, though. I just said it to calm myself. Also, the middle of my stomach hurts a little. What is it?

By anon271522 — On May 27, 2012

I think I've been having seizures. First my sight turns sort of red, then I lose all control of my body and fall. After it ends, all the memory I have of the event is the sound.

By looneygoon — On May 24, 2012

I am having episodes where my hands, legs, arms start to twitch and then I "fall asleep" and wake with a terrible jerk. A coworker says my eyes roll back and I am briefly unresponsive. This has happened at home as well. I also get a fixed stare and am unaware of anything around me. Is this a seizure and can low serum sodium or hypoglycemia cause it?

By anon136914 — On Dec 24, 2010

I'm 21 and last night I woke up from a night terror and my head was rhythmically shaking, but the rest of my body I couldn't move. The jerking of my head didn't stop for a good thirty seconds after I woke up to it. Enough for me to get my pulse which was at 104.

My breathing was heavy and I was so scared. It's the first time anything like this has happened. The only medication I take is melatonin for insomnia sometimes but I haven't had to take it for three weeks, and only started taking it in september. Any information would greatly be appreciated.

By anon101664 — On Aug 04, 2010

My daughter is one year old and and last night as I was trying to get her ready for bed I think she may have had a seizure. I took a toy away from her so that i could lay her down to change her diaper.

She got extremely mad and began to cry very hard. I put her down on the floor to change her and she continued to cry but all of a sudden she stopped breathing. Her face was dark red and she had her mouth up like she was crying but was not making any noise or taking a breath.

I picked her up and blew in her face to try to get her to take a breath, then her eyes rolled back in her head and she went limp. then she opened her eyes and took a deep breath and started crying. Once I calmed her down, she was fine.

This has happened three times and each time it started with her getting very upset or mad about something. is this a seizure?

By anon96096 — On Jul 14, 2010

Today at a sports camp a girl collapsed and a she might have been twitching a little bit but she woke right back up and looked confused. Did she faint or have a seizure? Like i said I am not 100 percent sure she was twitching. Also it was very hot.

By anon85405 — On May 20, 2010

I am 38 years old and had my grand mal seizure a couple of days ago. My entire tongue was so sore and swollen from where I had bitten it during the seizure.

My co-worker said I started making funny noises and when she turned around, I was shaking violently and my eyes were rolled back in my head. This is definitely one of the scariest things I have ever experienced.

Today I am still so weak and a little confused. I see the neurologist tomorrow. Hopefully he can give me a clue as to what caused this seizure.

By anon84608 — On May 16, 2010

i had a seizure about a week ago. it first started out as i could not get my leg to stop moving, then my head started to turn right, then back to facing front, then right again, i can remember going in to it and my mom yelling at me to lie down but i could not. then everything went black.

i was on my mom's bed and at the end of it is a dresser. well, my sister pushed it out of the way when i was seizing and the tv hit her in the head and me on the back when i woke up i was on the floor with an emt trying to help me up. i was extremely confused for a couple hours after that.

By anon52816 — On Nov 17, 2009

my brother just had one yesterday. it scared everybody, including me. I tried to help but I couldn't.

By anon25363 — On Jan 28, 2009

I was put in a sleeper hold and all I remember was coughing and then waking up to my mate calling my name which sounded echoy and he told me I fell on the floor and I was shaking and spiting out of my mouth I woke up and was fine is this a seizure or just me passing out? is it serious?

By anon15889 — On Jul 24, 2008

anon11617: I have the same thing! I had four so far. It happens like once a year, i dunno if its blood pressure related but im only 22 and i don't know what it is. I've been tested with an EKG and EEG and everything. Driving me nuts as one just happened again last week while i was at work. embarrassing...Although, mine only last 10-15 seconds and i've had nosebleeds with the first 3 and this 4th one i thought i had a nosebleed coming and so i checked then all of a sudden i felt dizzy and knelt then i fell to the ground as all my muscles constrict, teeth clench and my fists constrict and i can almost move my arms, or i think i can and i struggle, consciously trying to fight it off somehow. No answers.

By anon13962 — On Jun 07, 2008

anon its called sleep paralysis what you're experiencing, look it up its nothing serious.

By anon11968 — On Apr 27, 2008

I have been sleeping, and having a dream, or a 'nightmare' anyway, i got to the point where one would normally wake up because they are scared but i didn't wake up, then suddenly, i woke up and for about 3 -4 seconds, i couldn't move or breath. It really freaked me out, is it a kind of seizure?

By anon11617 — On Apr 19, 2008

I have had what I think may be seizures, but I'm not sure. It involved losing control of my muscles, falling to the floor on my hands and knees, and my arm muscles and other muscles would twitch uncontrollably. I would always be conscious and able to think, though I was often very confused, and I believe my vision was very limited, or I couldn't comprehend well what I saw. It never lasted more than 20 or 30 seconds. Sometimes, if I were near something, like my bunk bed, I would hang on and try not to fall while it happened, but I would usually fall anyway as I was too confused and lacked enough strength and control in my muscles. I think it may be related to blood pressure change, too, though.

By anon255 — On Apr 19, 2007

Several years ago, I was experiencing a twitching in my face. I could look in a mirror and actually see my right cheek involuntarily jumping around. I was terrified that it would happen in public but it never did. Was this a form of seizure? It happened approximately six different times.

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