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Types of Epileptic Seizures

January 21, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen
Additions/comments by Neurologist Steve Schadendorf, MD

Epilepsy is not uncommon in the United States and across the world. In 2015, 1.5% of the U.S. population had active epilepsy – 3 million adults and 470,000 children. Worldwide, over 50 million people live with the condition, making it one of the most common brain disorders.

 

Different types of seizures?

 

Most people know that epilepsy causes seizures, often very suddenly, which can be debilitating for the sufferer. But many don’t know that epileptics can have different types of seizures, with each type causing different symptoms. The Epilepsy Foundation classifies these types of seizures into three distinct groups, detailed below.

 

It’s important to know about each kind of seizure, so you’ll know what to do in case you happen to know someone with epilepsy who might be behaving strangely. You can help avoid any serious outcome just by memorizing the few key signs of a seizure.

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Epilepsy: Seizure Types

Epilepsy: Seizure Types

The three groups of seizures

 

The three groups of seizures, as classified by the International League Against Epilepsy, are:

 

Generalized onset seizures

 

The generalized onset seizure group, seizures in which affect both sides of the brain, includes absence seizures that cause the sufferer to blink rapidly or stare off into space, and tonic-clonic seizures, sometimes called “grand mal seizures,” which can cause the sufferer to lose consciousness, fall to the ground, or have muscle spasms or jerks.

 

Focal onset seizures

 

Focal onset seizures, previously called “partial seizures,” are located in one part of the brain. The focal onset seizure group includes simple focal seizures, which affect a small area of the brain and cause sensory changes such as a strange taste in the mouth or muscle twitching; complex focal seizures, which can cause a person with epilepsy to be stunned or dazed; and secondary generalized seizures, which initially start in one part of the brain and then spread to affect both sides of the brain. Secondary generalized seizures can present themselves with symptoms of both focal seizures and generalized seizures such as jerking movements, muscle twitches and spasms, and a sense of confusion or unawareness.

 

Unknown onset seizures

 

Unknown onset seizures include symptoms of both focal onset seizures and generalized onset seizures, but the beginning of an unknown onset seizure (where it originates in the brain) is not known.

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Epilepsy: Seizure Types, Continued

Epilepsy: Seizure Types, Continued

What should I do if I see someone having a seizure?

 

If you see anyone who you think may be having a seizure, no matter what type you think it is, come to their aid. Do not call 911 unless:

 

  • Their seizure lasts longer than five minutes, or
  • The person falls down and is physically hurt during the seizure, or
  • The person having the seizure is in a body of water, or
  • The person has another health condition such as diabetes or heart disease, or is pregnant, or
  • The person has another seizure after the initial one, or
  • The person has trouble walking or breathing after the seizure.

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Epilepsy: Calling 911

Epilepsy: Calling 911

In any case, try to stay with the person having the seizure until it passes, and make sure they don’t need any medical assistance afterwards. Do not interfere with the seizure, as you may make things worse. You can gently ease the person to the floor, remove their glasses if they’re wearing any, and make sure there are no sharp objects around them.

 

Now you know about the different types of seizures, and what to do if someone’s having a seizure. The knowledge you’ve just acquired can help save someone’s life.

Doctor Profile

Steve Schadendorf, MD

Founding Medical Partner

Dr. Schadendorf is a board certified neurologist who specializes in vascular neurology at Bass Medical Group. Dr. Schadendorf is a Founding Medical Partner and Medical Director of the Neuromedicine Channel at Doctorpedia.

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