Seizure Disorders: Definition, Symptoms, Causes, and Diagnosis
Seizures are a widespread occurrence which affects approximately 2% of adults globally. A seizure is a single occurrence of an uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain. It causes temporary confusion and involuntary movements or convulsions, also known as fits. Seizures can be a result of ‘provoked’ or non-epileptic triggers such as stroke, head injury, infection, among other medical conditions. The clinical presentation depends on the area of the brain affected and the severity of electric discharges.
Contrary to provoked seizures, seizure disorders are unprovoked and occur without any external trigger.
Definition of seizure disorders
Seizure disorders refer to medical conditions that are characterized by incidents of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain, which produces symptoms such as two or more seizures. Typically, seizures are a symptom of a seizure disorder or disease such as Epilepsy. Unlike provoked seizures, seizure disorders cause unprovoked or epileptic convulsions due to natural causes such as genetic or metabolic imbalances in the body.
Most seizure disorders begin in early childhood or late adulthood, and although they can be controlled with medication, managing them can still significantly impact one’s life. However, you can work with our specialists to balance symptoms and the side effects of drugs.
Types and symptoms of seizures
While there are over 40 different seizure disorders, they all fit into three types of seizures which slightly differ depending on the symptoms they produce. Generally, there are two types of seizures, namely:
- Focal seizures or partial seizures which begin from a specific part of the brain and affects approximately 60% of people with epilepsy. Focal Seizures are further divided into three categories, which include:
- Focal seizure with impaired awareness, which involves the loss of consciousness and may lead to staring into space or performing repetitive actions.
- Focal seizure without loss of consciousness which affect senses and emotions and may result in involuntary twitching or jerking of the arms or legs as well as spontaneous sensory symptoms such as dizziness or tingling.
- Generalized seizures which result from misfiring in both sides of the brain and can make an individual fall, blackout, or develop muscle spasms. There are six types of generalized seizures, which include:
- Tonic-clonic or grand mal is an epileptic type of seizures that cause an abrupt loss of consciousness, body stiffening, shaking, tongue biting, or even loss of bladder control.
- Clonic seizures are characterized by rhythmic, twitching muscle movements which affect the neck, face, and arms.
- Tonic seizures cause muscles in the back, arms, and legs to become stiff, which cause someone to fall.
- Atonic seizures, also referred to as drop seizures, cause loss of muscle control, which may lead to falling down.
- Myoclonic seizures are characterized by sudden, brief twitches in arms and legs.
- Absence or petit mal seizures are characterized by subtle body movements such as blinking or staring into space. These occur in clusters which cause loss of awareness.
- However, it is essential to note that in some cases, individuals can start off having one type of seizure only for it to develop into another kind, and sometimes it’s difficult to classify them. These kinds are referred to as unknown-onset seizures.
Generally, the symptoms of seizures differ depending on the area of the brain that is affected by the neuron misfire and the type of seizure (generalized or focal). Naturally, seizures are very brief and last between a few seconds to a few minutes, usually 1-2 minutes. Common symptoms include:
- An intense pleasant or unpleasant taste
- Visual hallucinations
- Temporary confusion
- Loss of awareness
Additionally, when a seizure stops in most cases, people do not remember what happened during the episode (a condition referred to as postictal amnesia). Other symptoms associated with the aftermath of seizures include headaches, confusion, unusual sensations, fatigue, and muscle soreness.
Causes of seizure disorders
Nerve cells, also referred to as neurons, use electrical impulses to communicate and convey information. Any disturbance or abnormality in the communication pathways triggers the neurons to misfire and transmit wrong signals. The most common causes of seizure disorders depend on when the symptoms start, as shown below:
- Early childhood (below 2 years): High fever and metabolic imbalances, including abnormal glucose, calcium, sodium, magnesium, and vitamin B6 levels in the blood can trigger epileptic seizures. However, if the seizures continue or recur without any of the triggers mentioned above the cause may be due to a birth defect, injury during birth, a brain disorder, or a hereditary metabolic abnormality.
- Between 2-14 years: Seizures in children are in most cases similar to seizures in adults. However, febrile seizure (which are triggered by fever) and infantile spasms exclusively affect children. Here the cause is often unknown.
- Adults and late adulthood: In adults, the cause of seizure usually result from non-epileptic triggers such as stroke, head injury, tumor, and so on. However, the cause in approximately half of this age group is unclear and hence referred to as idiopathic.
It is important to note that while epilepsy is a common cause of seizures, not every person who has a seizure is epileptic. Besides the causes mentioned above, others include sleep deprivation, side effects from medicine, use of illegal or recreational drugs, alcohol abuse during withdrawal, stress, among others.
A seizure disorder is diagnosed when an individual has had at least two unprovoked seizures occurring at different times. The diagnosis is established based on the accounts of eyewitnesses (how fast the episode began, how long it lasted, recovery time, any abnormal muscle movements, and so on) and the symptoms present. Other medical tests are carried out, including Electroencephalography (EEG), which records brain activity.
When to see a doctor
- If a seizure lasts for more than 5 minutes or if there is more than one episode within 5 minutes
- Breathing or consciousness isn’t normal after the episode ends
- You experience high fever
- You experience heat exhaustion
- You have diabetes
- You are pregnant
- You got injured during the episode
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