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Understanding Seizures -- the Basics

What Are Seizures?

A seizure occurs when there’s abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures may go virtually unnoticed. Or, in severe cases, they may produce a change or loss of consciousness and involuntary muscle spasms called convulsions. Seizures usually come on suddenly and vary in duration and severity. A seizure may be a one-time event, or you may have seizures repeatedly. Recurrent seizures are called epilepsy, or a seizure disorder. Less than one in 10 people who has a seizure develops epilepsy.

Experts classify seizures into two general categories and many subtypes based on the pattern of the attack.

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Generalized seizures involve both sides of the brain from the start of the attack. Common subtypes include tonic-clonic (grand mal) and absence seizures (petit mal). Febrile and infantile spasms are two types of generalized seizures that occur almost exclusively in young children.

Partial (or focal) seizures are the second major seizure type. These begin in a specific area of the brain and may be contained there. Or they may spread to the entire brain.

  • With simple partial seizures, the person remains conscious.
  • Complex partial seizures involve impaired consciousness.

 

What Causes Seizures?

Often the cause of a seizure is unknown. Many conditions can provoke seizures, including:

  • Stroke
  • Brain tumors
  • Head injuries
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Very low blood sugar
  • Repetitive sounds or flashing lights, such as in video games
  • Medications, such as antipsychotics and some asthma drugs
  • Withdrawal from medications, such as Xanax, narcotics, or alcohol
  • Use of drugs such as cocaine and heroin
  • Cancer
  • Brain infections, such as meningitis

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on March 21, 2014

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