How Many Types of Seizures are There?

If you’ve recently experienced a seizure, have been told by a health care provider that you have or know somebody who is prone to having them, you probably have questions. It’s important to understand the types of seizures that exist, the symptoms of them and what causes them. We have some helpful information to share with you about the two main types and the six sub-types of seizures identified.

Two main types of seizures

There are two main seizure types. These are focal and generalized. Focal seizures happen in a specific part of the brain, not always the same part for everyone. They happen when there are problems with the brain cells that cause the nerves in the brain to misfire. The effects may be physical and emotional. Perceptions involving the five senses may be affected. More than half of the people with epilepsy have focal seizures. They are also referred to as partial seizures. The symptoms of focal seizures are often mistaken for a nerve disorder or mental illness.

Generalized seizures

These seizure types occur when nerves locate on both sides of the brain misfire. The symptoms can include spasms of the muscles, falling down or a total blackout. People who experience this type of seizure may have physical symptoms as well as sensory. The cause of generalized seizures is not always known, but six types of them have been identified.

Grand mal seizures

These are also referred to as Tonic or clonic. They are the easiest to recognize. The body shakes, jerks and stiffens and the person loses consciousness. In some cases, bowel and bladder control is also lost. They generally last between 1 to three minutes. If they last longer than this, you should call 911 because the person could bite their cheek, tongue or experience breathing problems.

  • Clonic: The muscles spasm with a rhythmic jerking of the neck, face muscles and arms. This seizure type can last for several minutes.
  • Tonic: The muscles in the trunk, legs, and arms tense up and this symptom lasts for 20 seconds or less. They usually happen while you’re sleeping. If they occur when you’re in a standing position there is a danger of losing your balance and falling. These are the most common for people with epilepsy that is specified as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
  • Atonic seizures: This type of seizure causes the muscles to abruptly go limp. The person’s head may slump forward. If they are holding something they may drop it. Those in a standing position may fall. This seizure type usually lasts for a duration of 15 seconds or less. People who have frequent atonic seizures may need to wear a helmet to protect their heads from potential injury from falls. The people who most commonly have this type of seizure are those with epilepsy types Dravet syndrome or Lennox Gastaut syndrome.
  • Myoclonic seizures: The muscles jerk suddenly as if the person has received an electrical shock.
  • Absence (petit mal) seizures: This type of seizure causes the person to disconnect from everyone around them for a few seconds. They often stare blankly. Their eyes may roll in the back of their heads and they don’t remember having them. They usually last for just a few seconds. Children under the age of 14 most frequently have this type of seizure.
  • Simple focal seizures: This type of seizure changes how a person’s senses perceive the world around them. The five senses are affected and the sense of taste and smell can be off. There may be twitching of the arms, legs, and fingers. The person may also feel dizzy and see flashes of light. They may also feel nauseated or sweat but they do not lose consciousness.
  • Complex focal seizures: Complex focal seizures occur in an area of the brain controlling memory and emotion. It’s possible to lose consciousness but still look awake. Persons having this type of seizure may laugh, cry, smack the lips or gag. This type of seizure can last for several minutes before they come out of it.
  • Secondary general seizures: This type of seizure happens in one part of the brain and spreads to nerve cells on both sides. It may cause convulsions or slackness of the muscles. They can last for several minutes.

These are the main types of seizures that can occur. Their symptoms can vary. By understanding how to identify them, you will be better able to assess what is happening to a person and when it may be time to call for professional medical assistance.


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