What Causes Seizures? Epileptic vs. Non-Epileptic Seizures
Epilepsy is commonly thought of as the primary cause of seizures. However, there are different types of seizures, or episodes that look like seizures, that are not caused by faulty electrical signals in the brain.
We commonly think of someone falling down and shaking violently or having stiff, jerky movements when having a seizure. But a seizure doesn’t always cause a person to lose consciousness. Sometimes, the person may:
- Stare into space
- Have muscle spasms
- Make involuntary movements
- Have disruptions to his or her speech, movement, vision, or senses
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Understanding the Different Types of Seizures
Focal Epilepsy and Partial Seizures
Epileptic seizures occur when there are abnormal bursts of electricity in the brain. These bursts disrupt the brain’s normal function and lead to some loss of consciousness or impaired senses.
Types of Epileptic Seizures
People with epilepsy may experience one of two main types of seizures: generalized or partial.
Generalized seizures occur across the entire surface of the brain rather than a specific location. These are less common and tend to be because of genetic factors.
Most adults with epilepsy experience partial seizures, which begin in a specific region of the brain. These seizures can result from:
- Brain injury
- Brain tumor
- Diseases that affect the brain
Partial seizures can last from 30 seconds to a few minutes.
Epilepsy is diagnosed by a brain scan such as an electroencephalogram (EEG). These scans will show the abnormal electrical activity and whether a tumor or injury is causing the trouble. With a diagnosis of epilepsy, medications are usually the first choice to lessen the frequency of seizures. Surgery may also be necessary if there is a brain tumor or lesion present.
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Non-epileptic seizures appear the same as those from epilepsy:
- Impaired or jerky movements
- Tunnel vision
- A tingling sensation in the skin
- Temporary blindness
Other symptoms may also occur. However, with these seizures the central nervous system is not involved.
Causes of Non-Epileptic Seizures
Non-epileptic seizures have a range of causes including:
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
- Extremely low blood sugar
- Brain damage from stroke, brain surgery, or head injury
Although some causes are the same between epileptic and non-epileptic seizures, the difference your doctor will look for is whether the brain’s electrical activity is being disrupted. Results from an EEG will look differently if epilepsy is not the cause.
Your doctor may also perform a blood test to look for infection, check electrolyte levels, and monitor kidney and liver function.
It’s important to know the difference in the types of seizures before moving forward with medication or other treatment plan for your seizures. Treating non-epileptic seizures with epilepsy medications can have serious side effects.