Do you know what a seizure looks like?

Researchers believe epilepsy is frequently under-diagnosed and under-recognized because of its connection to other conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in August 2017 that there are more people living with epilepsy in the United States than ever before.

More than 3.4 million people, including over 470,000 children, live with active epilepsy. Numbers have increased substantially from previously reported data, leading researchers to believe the condition is frequently under-diagnosed and under-recognized because of its connection to other conditions.

What is epilepsy?

One in 26 people will develop epilepsy, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. It’s a chronic medical condition that affects the brain, causing seizures. Seizures happen when the misfires or doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Think of it like an electrical storm in the brain. In rare cases, epilepsy can cause SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy).

When many people think about a seizure, they usually think of a certain kind of seizure: the tonic-clonic seizure, also known as grand mal. Tonic-clonic seizures can make someone fall to the ground, lose consciousness and have muscle spasms. However, at least 30 different types of seizures exist, according to the CDC. While a grand mal seizure can be easy to spot, it can be hard to tell that a person is having a different type of seizure.

What are signs of a seizure?

  • Temporary confusion that the person may or may not remember
  • Staring spells as if the person is focused on something that isn’t there
  • Uncontrollable jerking movement of the body
  • Loss of consciousness or awareness
  • Feelings of fear, anxiety or déjà vu

Types of seizures

In most cases, someone with epilepsy has the same type of seizure each time.

Focal seizures

This type of seizure starts in one area of the brain. Focal seizures can be confused with other neurological disorders, such as migraine or narcolepsy. The two types include:

  • Focal seizures without losing consciousness. This type can affect emotions or affect the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound. They can cause involuntary jerking of a body part, along with tingling, dizziness and lights flashing.
  • Focal seizures with impaired awareness. This type of seizure may cause loss of consciousness or awareness. The person may stare off into space and not respond to what’s going on around them. It may cause repetitive movements, such as hand rubbing, chewing, swallowing or walking in circles.

Generalized seizures

Generalized seizures involve all parts of the brain. Some types include:

  • Absence seizures. What used to be known as petit mal seizures, these often happen in children. The can cause the person to stare off into space, lose awareness and have subtle body movements, such as eye blinking or lip smacking. This type often happens one right after the other.
  • Tonic seizures. This type can cause muscles to stiffen in the back, arms and legs, which can cause accidents.
  • Atonic seizures. Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures, cause a loss of muscle control, which may cause the person to suddenly collapse or fall down.
  • Clonic seizures. Clonic seizures can be identified by repeated or rhythmic, jerking muscle movements. These seizures usually affect the neck, face and arms.
  • Myoclonic seizures. This type often looks like brief unexplainable jerks or twitches of the arms and legs.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures. This is the most dramatic type and can cause a sudden loss of consciousness. The body can become stiff and shake. Sometimes the person will lose control of the bladder or bite their tongue.

If this sounds like anything you’ve experienced, talk to your doctor.

The first step is making the right diagnosis. Norton Neuroscience Institute epilepsy specialists can recommend the best treatment for each person based on symptoms. Therapies can range from changes in diet to medications to surgery — all with the goal of eliminating seizures and improving quality of life.

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