Seizures can take many forms, depending on what part of the brain the malfunction takes place within and how much of the total brain area is affected. Partial Seizures, or focal seizures, affect a part of the brain, while Generalized Seizures affect the whole brain. Partial seizures can be simple (during which a person remains awake and aware) or complex (during which a person’s awareness is clouded).
I. (Generalized) Tonic Clonic Seizures (Previously called Grand Mal Seizures)
Tonic Clonic seizures are what most people associate with “epilepsy” or “seizure”. These cause a person to undergo complete loss of consciousness and convulsions or muscle spasms usually lasting from 2 to 5 minutes.
Description: A sudden cry, fall, and rigidity, followed by muscle jerks/spasms, shallow breathing or temporarily suspended breathing, bluish skin, possible loss of bladder or bowel control. These seizures usually last a couple of minutes. Once the seizure stops, normal breathing should resume. There may be confusion and/or fatigue, followed by return to full consciousness.
What it is not: Heart attack or stroke
II. (Generalized) Absence Seizures (Previously called Petit Mal Seizures)
These seizures take the form of a blank, unresponsive stare lasting a few seconds.
Description: An abrupt, blank stare, lasting only a few seconds. Most common in children. May be accompanied by rapid blinking and/or chewing movements in the mouth. Person is unaware of surroundings during the seizure, but quickly return to full awareness once the seizure has stopped. May result in learning difficulties if not recognized and treated.
What it is not: Daydreaming, lack of attention or deliberate ignorance of adult instructions
III. (Partial) Simple Partial Seizures
Partial seizures produce involuntary movements of the arm or leg, distorted sensations or a period of automatic movement in which awareness is not lost or altered.
Description: Jerking may begin in one area of the body, arm, leg or face. The jerking can’t be stopped, but the patient remains awake and aware. Jerking may proceed from one area of the body to another and sometimes spread to become a convulsive seizure. During a partial sensory seizure, the person experiences a distorted environment. They may see or hear things that aren’t there; they may feel unexplained fear, sadness, anger or joy. They may have nausea, experience odd smells or have a generally “funny feeling.” Partial sensory seizures may not be obvious to an onlooker.
What it is not: Acting out, bizarre behavior, hysteria, mental illness, psychosomatic illness, or a mystical experience.
IV. (Partial) Complex Partial Seizures (Previously called Temporal Lobe Seizures)
Description: These seizures usually start with a blank stare, followed by chewing, followed by a random activity. person appears unaware of surroundings, they may seem dazed and mumble; they may be unresponsive; their actions will be clumsy, not directed; they may pick at or fumble with their clothing, they may pick up objects or try to take their clothes off; they may wander or run; they may appear afraid; they may struggle or flail at restraint. Once a pattern is established, the same set of actions usually occurs with each seizure. The seizure lasts a few minutes, but post-seizure confusion can last substantially longer. There will be no memory of what happened during the seizure period.
What it is not: Drunkenness, drug intoxication, mental illness or disorderly conduct
V. (Generalized) Atonic Seizures (Also called Drop Attacks)
Description: A person suddenly collapses and falls. After 10 seconds to a minute, they recover; regaining consciousness and can stand and walk again. This type of seizure can result in injury due to sudden falling.
What it is not: Clumsiness, normal childhood “stage”, lack of good walking skills (child), drunkenness or acute illness (adult)
VI. (Generalized) Myoclonic Seizures
Description: Sudden, brief, massive muscle jerks that may involve the whole body or just parts of the body. These seizures may cause a person to drop what they were holding or fall off a chair.
What it is not: Clumsiness or poor coordination
VII. (Generalized) Infantile Spasms
Description: These are clusters of quick, sudden movements that start between 3 months and 2 years of age. If a child is sitting up, their head will fall forward and their arms will flex forward. If a child is lying down, their knees will draw up, with their arms and head flexed forward as if they are reaching for support.
What it is not: Normal movements of the baby, colic
How You can Help the Doctor: Observing and Recording Seizures
There are many different types of seizures. The doctor must know which kind has occurred before the correct treatment can begin. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell certain kinds of seizures from others. The doctor may not see the seizures so they must rely on the information provided to them, along with what is found from certain medical tests to decide which medications and treatments to use. The better you are in describing the seizure, the easier and quicker it will be for the doctor to start getting those seizures under control.
Use our Seizure Record Form to assist you in recording and identifying seizures. You can help stop seizures!