University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Mark Granner MD
Associate Professor of Neurology
First Published: 2000
Last Revised: December 2004
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
If you saw someone fall down in the street, you might think the person was drunk. Or perhaps having a heart attack.
There's another possible explanation.
The person could be having a seizure, the term many people use to describe an epilepsy episode.
"There is still a social stigma attached to epilepsy." says Dr. Mark Granner MD, associate professor of neurology and
director of the Iowa Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. "It's important for patients and doctors to know that epilepsy is not transmitted from person to person, it can most often be controlled with medication, and most people with epilepsy lead normal, productive lives."
Granner describes an epileptic seizure as "a dramatic and scary thing, like lightning. A seizure seems to strike from nowhere and can be devastating to the individual."
But it is important to realize that people with seizure disorders can lead entirely normal lives, Dr. Granner emphasizes.
There are several types of seizures that can arise from the entire brain (known as "generalized seizures") or from a discreet area of the brain (known as "partial seizure").
The most dramatic seizure is the generalized tonic-clonic seizure, formerly known as "grand mal." This is characterized by a pattern of "rhythmic jerking movements, loss of consciousness and, possibly, loss of bowel and bladder control," Dr. Granner says.
If you see someone who seems to be having this type of seizure, remove from the area any objects that could cause physical injury, he suggests. The person should be placed on one side to avoid the possiblity of inhaling vomit. Loosen tight clothing and remove the person's glasses. Prying open the person's mouth can cause more harm than good because teeth can be broken off in the process. Broken teeth can cause serious complications if they are inhaled or swallowed.
Absence seizures, another type of generalized seizure, are nonviolent episodes in which a person, usually a child, simply tunes out all surrounding activities. The person may be staring blankly, blinking eyes, smacking lips or stop talking in the middle of a sentence but does not respond to those who stop to help or remember what happened after it is over. A complex partial seizure can similarly involve blank staring but typically lasts longer than an absence seizure, involving a greater degree of automatic movements such as chewing or moving the hands and often is followed by confusion.
There are other types of seizures, but they are much less common.
Anyone who may have experienced a seizure should see a physician for examination, Dr. Granner says.
"A number of new medications, plus an electical device and surgery," lead to better treatment options than ever before," Dr. Granner says.
Not all seizures are caused by epilepsy. "The first step to effective treatment" says Dr. Granner, "is a thorough evaluation by a neurologist."
Children's seizures can result from less serious causes, such as high fevers. This, too, requires evaluation by a physician.