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Types of Seizures

Seizures can be due to epilepsy or some other cause. Medical conditions other than epilepsy, such as brain tumors and meningitis, can also cause epileptic seizures. Recurrent seizures can be a sign of epilepsy, and these seizures can take various forms.

The epileptologists and other seizure specialists at Barnes-Jewish Hospital are highly experienced in treating all types of seizures. We see hundreds of patients with seizures each year, whether caused by epilepsy or a different condition.

If you are having a seizure for the first time, we can evaluate your type of seizure at our Comprehensive Epilepsy Center with EEG and other testing. For further diagnosis and treatment options, we may recommend admission to our 12-bed epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU). Here, we will use video EEG and additional advanced testing to learn more about where your seizures are coming from and how we can best treat them.

Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures affect all areas of the brain, simultaneously starting in both sides of the brain. Types of generalized seizures include:

  • Absence or petit mal seizures: A person having an absence seizure (usually a child) may stare into space or have a blank look on their face for several seconds. It is easy to confuse this with daydreaming. In some cases, the seizures can last up to 20 seconds and may also include rapid blinking or facial gestures.
  • Atonic seizures: This type of seizure causes a sudden loss of muscle tone. A person’s body goes limp, and they may fall to the ground or slump over in a chair. These seizures are typically short (15 seconds or less), and the person usually remains conscious. However, injury is common, sometimes requiring the person to wear protective gear, such as a helmet.
  • Clonic seizures: These seizures cause rhythmic muscle jerking. They can last up to a minute.
  • Myoclonic seizures: A person having a myoclonic seizure experiences a quick jerk or jolt. These seizures affect groups of muscles and are quick, lasting only a second or two.
  • Tonic seizures: This type of seizure causes a sudden increase in muscle tone. A person’s body goes forcefully stiff or rigid. This often causes a fall.
  • Tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures: These seizures are a combination of tonic and clonic seizures. It is what most people picture as a seizure. The tonic phase occurs first, followed by the clonic phase. A person having a tonic-clonic seizure will lose consciousness and fall. These seizures typically last up to three minutes. Afterwards, it is common for the person to feel confused, tired or weak.

Seizures that last five minutes or longer or recur rapidly require emergency medical attention. Call 9-1-1 for the fastest response.

Partial or Focal Seizures

Partial seizures only affect a part of the brain and tend to have very specific symptoms. There are three basic types of partial seizures:

  • Simple partial seizures: These seizures have subdivisions depending on the types of symptoms. Motor seizures affect the muscles. Sensory seizures change the way the person perceives their senses. Autonomic seizures affect bodily functions, such as heart rate, breathing or sweating. Partial seizures can also change the way a person thinks or feels, such as causing sudden emotions out of context for the situation.
  • Complex partial seizures: This type of partial seizure spreads to areas of the brain that control consciousness, leading to partial or full loss of consciousness. A person may experience an aura prior to the seizure and then stare into space or have repetitive movements.
  • Secondarily generalized seizures: These seizures start as partial seizures, but spread to all areas of the brain and become convulsive. It can be hard to tell them apart from primary generalized seizures.

To make an appointment with a Washington University neurologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, call 855.925.0631.

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