Health A-Z

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Primary Generalized Seizures
The different types of primary generalized seizures cause different symptoms:

  • Generalized tonic-clonic seizure (also called grand mal seizure) In this type of seizure, the person usually loses consciousness and falls to the ground. All body muscles can contract at once in a sustained contraction, or they can contract in a series of shorter rhythmic contractions, or both. Some patients also lose bowel or bladder control. The seizure episode typically lasts for less than a minute and is followed by period of lethargy (sluggishness) and temporary confusion. Often muscles are very sore after a generalized seizure.

  • Absence seizure (also called petit mal seizure) In this type of seizure, loss of consciousness is so brief that the person usually doesn't change position. For a few seconds, the person may have a blank stare or rapid blinking. This type of seizure usually begins in childhood or early adolescence.

  • Status epilepticus A state of a prolonged seizure (20 minutes or longer) or a series of seizures without fully regaining consciousness. This is a life-threatening medical emergency.

Partial (Focal) Seizures
The different types of partial seizures cause different symptoms:

  • Simple partial seizure In a simple partial seizure, the seizure-related electrical discharges remain localized so that the person experiences a feeling, sensation, movement or other symptom without losing consciousness. During a simple partial seizure, the person remains awake and aware. Symptoms vary depending on the specific brain area involved and may include:

    • Jerking movements in one part of the body

    • An experience of abnormal smells or a distorted environment

    • Unexplained fear or rage

  • Complex partial seizure This is the most common type of partial seizure. In this type of seizure, the person loses awareness of his or her surroundings and is unresponsive or only partially responsive. There may be a blank stare, chewing or lip-smacking, or repetitive movements of the hands. After the seizure, the person typically is confused and has no memory of the episode.

Either type of partial seizure may become a generalized seizure if the electrical activity spreads from the part of the brain where the seizure started to the rest of the cerebral cortex.

Seizures often are followed by a period of lethargy, drowsiness and confusion. This happens most often with generalized seizures. These symptoms are not part of the seizure itself but are connected to the brain recovering from the effects of the seizure. In addition, warning symptoms called an aura may occur immediately before complex partial and generalized seizures. The aura is actually a brief simple partial seizure that generally involves changes in visual perception, smell, taste or emotional state.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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