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A seizure is one of those scary things that most of us don’t really know much about. But if you or a loved one have seizures or are epileptic, you can work with your doctor to determine the underlying cause and choose the best treatment.
What Is a Seizure?
In the simplest terms, a seizure is when the brain becomes over-stimulated, causing it to function abnormally (and therefore causing the body to do weird things). The brain is made up of neurons, specialized cells that create and transmit electrical impulses between each other to communicate. The transmission of these impulses is responsible for everything you can do, from walking to digesting food to remembering what day it is. When a person has a seizure, this electrical activity gets out of control.
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Types of Seizures
There are two main types of seizures. The type that most people are familiar with are grand mal seizures, also known as tonic clonic seizures or convulsions. This type of seizure is usually characterized by the person’s body going stiff and then rapidly jerking.
Focal seizures are limited to a smaller area of the brain, and thus affect only part of the body. One arm might jerk, or the person may uncontrollably chew and smack his or her lips.
“Absence seizures” are when the person seems to zone out and stare. Also, there are muscular disorders that may cause episodes and movements that look like a seizure but are not.
Most seizures last only a couple of minutes. If the seizure is prolonged, or if the person experiences several seizures one after the other, the brain can overheat and cause permanent damage.
What Causes Seizures?
Seizures can be caused by a variety of things, some of which we understand and some of which still require more research. Each patient may have different sensitivities, or triggers, that can bring on a seizure, or there may be no apparent cause.
Epilepsy is the general term for when there is something abnormal about the brain that predisposes it to seizures. This could be damage from a head injury, an infection, a tumor, a stroke, or an inherited defect. Having one seizure does not mean that a person has epilepsy. A diagnosis of epilepsy requires testing to rule out other causes for the seizures.
Seizures can be caused by physiological states in the body, such as:
- Low blood sugar
- Stress or an anxiety attack
- Strong emotions
- Hard exercise
- Lack of sleep
Seizures can also be triggered by things in the environment, like:
- Flashing lights
- Loud noises
- Chemical smells
Some people experience sensations before or during a seizure. These sensations are called auras. An aura could be unexplained fear, not feeling well, or a smell or sound that no one else can sense. These auras can occur alone or may precede a grand mal seizure.
Because we encounter and experience so many different things in the course of our daily lives, it can be very difficult to determine what causes a person to seize.
If you experience one or more seizures, keep a journal detailing everything you can remember that happened before each seizure. These notes will help your doctor to identify potential triggers. Ask anyone who witnesses you having a seizure to also record everything that they noticed before, during, and after the seizure to provide additional information that could be valuable.
There are a variety of diagnostic tests that can be done to help determine why a seizure has occurred and to detect or rule out potential causes.
- Blood work will check for blood sugar levels and any other abnormalities that could indicate infection or the presence of a systemic disease.
- Electroencephalography uses electrode pads placed on the patient’s head to evaluate the electrical activity within the brain.
- A CT scan or MRI can be used to check for anything physically abnormal in the brain, such as a tumor or evidence of a stroke.
- A spinal tap can also be done to evaluate the cerebrospinal fluid for signs of infection.
How are Seizures Treated?
Seizures are really more of a symptom than an actual disease, so when possible, doctors will treat the underlying cause of the seizures. For example, if the patient has a brain tumor, removal or reduction of the tumor will most likely resolve the seizures. Infections will be treated with appropriate antibiotics, and seizures caused by diabetic shock will be resolved once the person’s blood sugar levels have been stabilized. Seizures caused by hormonal fluctuations can be treated with hormone therapy. If the cause of the seizures is psychological—stress, for example—anti-anxiety medications will be prescribed.
Your doctor will take measures to prevent seizures from occurring or to lessen their intensity. This usually involves taking anti-seizure medications.
There are a variety of anti-seizure medications on the market, each with its own pluses and minuses. You’ill need to work with your doctor to select the best medication for you, and expect that determining the optimal dose may take some adjustments.
Some medications have side effects that will go away as your body becomes used to the drug, while others may persist (if this happens, consult with your doctor to try a different medication). As with any medication, you want to get the best results with the least number of side effects. If necessary, multiple medications may be taken at once.
For anti-seizure medication to be effective, it is important to follow instructions carefully and take your medication at the same time every day. Also, discuss any other medications that you are on or might consider taking with your doctor to avoid any potential drug interactions.