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Seizure Signs, Types and Risk Factors

Having a seizure can be an unsettling experience. At Banner Brain & Spine, we’re here to help you find answers and get started with treatment as quickly as possible. As a leader in seizure care, our specialists use the latest medical advances and therapeutic techniques to help effectively manage your seizure condition. We offer patients and their families education, support groups and classes with tools to navigate a seizure diagnosis.

Our experienced, compassionate neurological care team is here for you every step of the way. Your primary care doctor, neurologists, imaging specialists, physical therapists, nurse navigators and others collaborate to build a treatment plan specific to your care needs.

What Are Seizures?

Seizures are not a disease, but rather a symptom of a disorder affecting the brain. During a seizure, abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes chemical changes in your nerve cells, affecting your awareness, behavior and movements. 

Seizures usually come on suddenly. How long and severe they last can vary. Some seizures are over in just a few seconds, while others last several minutes. Some seizures you may hardly notice, while others can cause unconsciousness and convulsions. 

A seizure can happen to you once or repeatedly. People who experience reoccurring seizures have a seizure disorder called epilepsy. Learn more about Banner Brain & Spine’s advanced epilepsy care.

What Are Signs Someone Is Having a Seizure?

Sometimes you may not be able to tell someone is having a seizure – the person may just seem confused or to be staring at something. In other cases, seizures cause a person to collapse and be unresponsive. The person may clench his/her muscles and shake or jerk uncontrollably.

When the person comes to, they may be confused, disoriented, tired and have a headache. People also can experience muscle weakness, have difficulty speaking, have temporary partial vision loss and/or loss of other senses. These post-seizure symptoms can last a few minutes, hours or even days.

What to Do If Someone Is Having a Seizure

In most cases, seizures don’t require emergency medical care. Keeping the person safe and knowing basic first aid can help. However, you should call 911 if you believe someone is in serious danger, is injured, or the seizure lasts longer than five minutes or repeats without full recovery.

How to help someone having a seizure:

  • Don't hold them down
  • Don't put anything in their mouth
  • Keep others out of the way
  • Keep track of how long the seizure lasts
  • Place them on their side to keep their airway clear
  • Move anything hard or sharp
  • If disoriented, guide them away from threats
  • Comfort them during and after
  • Remain with them until full awareness returns
  • Make sure the person rests after the seizure

What Are Causes or Risk Factors for Seizures?

The cause of seizures is often unknown. Many factors can trigger, increase your risk or contribute to seizures in some people, including:

  • Fever
  • Menstrual periods
  • Lack of sleep
  • Strong emotions
  • Intense exercise
  • Loud music
  • Flashing lights
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Very low blood sugar
  • Head injuries
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Brain tumors
  • Brain infections like meningitis
  • Medications like some antipsychotics and asthma drugs
  • Withdrawal from some medications like Xanax, narcotics or alcohol
  • Narcotics such as cocaine and heroin

How Are Seizures Treated?

Generally, a seizure diagnosis is treated with medication. If seizures prove to be more difficult to control, other treatments such as diet therapy, nerve stimulation or surgery may be considered. Discuss your treatment options and preferences with your seizure care team.

Types of Seizures

Not all seizures are alike. Some can cause you to stiffen, convulse and lose consciousness. Others are less intense, causing you to twitch, have a glazed-over look, or experience altered sensations. There are two major types of seizures: focal and generalized.

Focal Seizures

Focal, or partial, seizures are located in one specific part of the brain. There are two types of focal seizures:

  • Retained awareness (simple partial): You remain conscious; however, you may not be able to respond. You also may experience twitching or change in sensations such as taste or smell. Usually, this type of seizure lasts less than two minutes.
  • Impaired awareness (focal dyscognitive or complex partial): You may lose awareness or consciousness and do things without knowing it, like chewing, mumbling, walking aimlessly, moving your legs or thrusting your hips. Usually, this type of seizure lasts two to four minutes, followed by a period of confusion.

Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures affect both sides of the brain. You also can experience a secondary generalized seizure, meaning it begins in one part of the brain (focal) and spreads (generalized). Subsets of generalized seizures include:

  • Tonic-clonic (grand mal): You lose consciousness immediately. Your arms and legs go stiff and muscles spasm. You may briefly stop breathing, bite your tongue and/or emit a quick, loud cry. You could lose control of your bladder and bowels. Usually, a tonic-clonic seizure lasts less than three minutes. After the seizure, you need to rest. You are likely to experience fatigue, confusion and/or headaches for a period of time.
  • Absence seizures (petit mal): You lose awareness and some muscle control for a few seconds. You may blink rapidly, open and close your mouth, make chewing movements and/or have a blank stare. You don’t experience convulsions. Usually, you don’t have any memory of the seizure and can resume normal activities immediately.

What Is the Difference between Seizures and Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition. Although anyone can have a seizure, epilepsy is defined as having chronic seizures, generally meaning two or more seizures. Learn more about epilepsy care at Banner Brain & Spine.