At TheHealthBoard, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
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.
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.
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 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.