Epilepsy & Seizures

Epilepsy is a neurological condition involving the brain that makes people more prone to having recurrent seizures. It is one of the most common disorders of the nervous system and affects people of all ages, races and ethnic background. Almost 2.2 million Americans live with epilepsy.

A seizure happens when one or more parts  of the brain receive a burst of abnormal electrical signals that temporarily interrupts normal brain function.

Anything that interrupts the normal connections between nerve cells in the brain can cause a seizure. This includes a high fever, high blood sugar, alcohol or drug withdrawal or a concussion. Under these circumstances, anyone can have one or more seizures. However, when a person has two or more seizures, he or she is considered to have epilepsy.

There are many possible causes of epilepsy, including an imbalance of nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters, tumors, strokes and brain damage from illness or injury, or some combination of these. In the majority of people with epilepsy, no cause will be discovered.

What are the different types of seizures?

Focal (Partial) Seizures: Known as focal seizures (formerly known as “partial seizures”), they start in one region of the brain and then may spread during the actual seizure. The symptoms of a focal seizure are determined by the brain function where the seizure occurs. A seizure in the movement area of the brain, for example, might cause an arm or leg to jerk uncontrollably. There are basically three types of focal seizures: focal with retained awareness, focal with impaired awareness (formerly known as “complex partial”) and focal seizures that spread into secondarily generalized seizures.

Generalized Seizures: Begin and continue in both sides (hemispheres) of the brain. The person will typically experience a loss of consciousness, either briefly or for a longer period of time. The most common types are staring seizures (also called absence), and convulsions (also called tonic clonic, or “grand mal”). There are several other types that are less common.

Psychogenic Seizures: Often are called non-epileptic seizures though the symptoms may lead patients and health care providers to believe they are a sign of epilepsy. Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures are attacks that may look like epileptic seizures, but unlike epileptic seizures, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures are not caused by abnormal brain electrical discharges. They are stress or emotion related. It is important that patients and doctors recognize that almost always the patient with psychogenic non-epileptic seizures is not “faking” anything, and the attacks are not under the patient’s control.

What if I witness someone having a seizure?

  • Stay calm
  • Protect the person having the seizure
  • Cushion the head
  • Loosen tight neckwear
  • Move any objects or furniture that might cause harm
  • Turn the person on their side
  • Do not insert any object into the mouth
  • Do not restrain the person
  • Talk to the person in a reassuring voice


Call 911 if…

  • The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes
  • Seizures occur in clusters over a short period of time
  • Injury occurs or is suspected
  • The seizure occurs in water
  • The person appears to be choking or having difficulty breathing
  • The person is pregnant or has other medical issues
  • The person doesn’t recover well after a seizure or gets sick a few hours or days after the seizure

Explore the UC Epilepsy Center