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What Is A Seizure? A Phelps Hospital Expert Explains

If you or a loved one is suffering from seizures, visit a neurologist.
If you or a loved one is suffering from seizures, visit a neurologist. Photo Credit: Northwell Health

What is a seizure?

A seizure is the result of abnormal excessive activity of neurons in the brain.

How do seizures present?

Seizures can present with abnormal involuntary jerking or twitching movements of the arms or legs. Sometimes people can urinate on themselves or bite their tongue. They can make a strange sound during a seizure and may have difficulty breathing.

Some seizures do not involve repetitive shaking. Instead, people may have periods of confusion and staring or episodes of loss of awareness. Some people may experience recurrent episodes of having an unusual smell, a change in vision, or a strange sensation. Some people may lose awareness and may not shake.

With some seizures, a person may not be able to breathe properly or may fall and hurt themselves.

What should I do if I witness someone having a seizure?

  • Stay with the person until the seizure stops.
  • Move them to the side, away from harm.
  • Gently put them on their side.
  • Do not try to hold them down when they are moving.
  • Do not put anything in their mouth.
  • Call 911 if the person continues to have a seizure for five minutes, or if they are pregnant, injured, or appear sick with difficulty breathing.

What should I do if I think I or my loved one may be having seizures?

Visit a neurologist. They can do specialized tests including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and do an electroencephalogram (EEG) test to investigate for abnormal activity in the brain.

What is the treatment for seizures?

There are a variety of treatments including medications, dietary changes and sometimes epilepsy surgery if seizures are very difficult to control. If a loved one is having a seizure at home, a seizure rescue medication can be administered by a loved one (i.e. a benzodiazepine nasal spray) to stop the seizure.

Are there any lifestyle modifications for to help control seizures?

Avoiding excess alcohol, drugs and caffeine can reduce seizures. Getting a good night sleep (at least 7-8 hours) and managing stress can also help. Exercising and eating healthy can improve mood and decrease stress, thereby decreasing seizures. Flashing bright lights or patterns, menstrual cycle or hormonal changes in women, low blood sugar, excess caffeine and some medications can trigger seizures.

Most of the time, these lifestyle modifications will not be enough. People with a diagnosis of epilepsy may still need to take an anti-epileptic drug to completely stop seizures.

What are some additional safety precautions if I or a loved one have seizures?

If swimming, it would be best to swim with a friend in a pool with a lifeguard present rather than in open water. It is better to take showers as opposed to baths to reduce risk of drowning. When walking on a subway platform, it is best to stay away from the ledge. It is best not to cook over an open fire. If you are having frequent seizures, it is best not to operate heavy machinery or use ladders or climb high heights. Also, if you or a loved one has a seizure where you lose awareness, it is best to not drive for a period of time. When to resume driving should best be discussed with a neurologist.

Do I need to be started on anti-seizure medications if I have a seizure?

If you have one lifetime seizure, after discussion with your neurologist, you may decide to wait and see if you have another one. An evaluation by a neurologist or an epilepsy specialist is still recommended, and proper seizure safety precautions should be followed. If you have more than two seizures greater than 24 hours apart, your chance of having subsequent seizures increases by about 75%.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is usually diagnosed when someone has more than two seizures greater than 24 hours apart. About 60% of the time, the cause of a seizure is unknown. In some people, it could be because of a metabolic imbalance (for example, a problem with low sodium, low blood sugar, or kidney or liver dysfunction). Some seizures can be the result of a brain lesion (an old stroke or a brain mass) or the result of an abnormal collection of cells in the brain that some people are born with. Some seizures are genetic (people are born with them and they run in families) and some seizures may be in the setting of alcohol or drug use.

3.4 million people in the USA have epilepsy. 1/26 people will have epilepsy at some point in their life.

Can people with epilepsy live normal lives?

Absolutely! People with epilepsy can live fulfilling lives. Many women with epilepsy have healthy pregnancies. Many teachers, doctors, actors, artists, and even past presidents have been diagnosed with epilepsy. 

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