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What Are Epileptic Seizures and What Causes Them?

schedule 14th August 2017 by Alex Bateman in Health and Safety Last updated on 24th April 2018

What are epileptic seizures and what causes them?

Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advise calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.

This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.

Virtual College advocate dialling the emergency services before attempting any form of first aid.

What Are Epileptic Seizures and What Causes Them?

A person can suffer from an epileptic seizure (also frequently known as an epileptic fit) when they experience abnormal electrical activity in the brain. This can be a serious medical condition, and any member of the population could potentially experience an epileptic seizure at some point in their lives. In this article, we’re going to go through exactly what happens when an epileptic fit occurs, and how they can be triggered.

Note: Epileptic seizures and epilepsy should not be confused, though they can be related. The phrase ‘epileptic seizure’ refers to the seizure event itself, but those people with epilepsy have a condition whereby they are susceptible to seizures that begin in the brain.

What Happens During an Epileptic Seizure?

Epileptic seizures happen when there is excessive or abnormal behaviour in neural activity occurring in any part of the brain. These can affect normal brain function, causing everything from auditory hallucinations and visual disturbances, to severe physical reactions. They can be one-off events, or commonplace symptoms of a particular condition, and can range from being minor to the point that no medical attention is required, to needing lifelong management.

What Types of Seizure Are There?

There are actually two types of seizure that can occur as a result of this abnormal brain activity. They are focal and generalised seizures, and it’s important to know the difference, because they manifest themselves differently, and can have different treatment paths.

Focal seizures, as their name suggests, begin in one part of the brain, which means that their effects can be varied depending on which part of the brain has been affected. They can range from fairly minor events in which the person remains conscious and remembers the seizure, having experienced phenomena such as hallucinatory lights and smells, to events whereby the person becomes confused or unconscious, and may engage in strange movements known as automatisms. This can include repetitive movements such as lip smacking.

Generalised seizures however affect the entire brain, and in almost all cases will result in a period of unconsciousness that the person does not remember. During this, there are a variety of things that can happen:

  • Tonic seizures - A person suffering from this kind of seizure will experience stiffness or contractions throughout the body, and may fall over. Generally, episodes of this type will only be brief.
  • Clonic seizures - Rather than stiffness, a person experiencing a clonic seizure will convulse and shake.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures - A combination of both a tonic and clonic seizure, this is one of the most common types of epileptic seizure, and will make a person experience contractions and arching of the back for up to half a minute, before shaking commences. It can take up to half an hour to fully recover from this type of seizure.
  • Myoclonic seizures - These are muscle spasms that occur sporadically in places throughout the body.
  • Atonic seizures - The opposite to tonic seizures, in this situation, a person’s muscles will all relax at once, which often causes them to collapse forwards. They are sometimes known as ‘drop attacks’.
  • Absence seizures - Also known as petit mal seizures, can be fairly minor with no loss of consciousness, and generally involve disorientation, confusion, and minor muscle movements such as turning of the head.

Note: focal seizures can sometimes progress to become generalised seizures.

What Causes an Epileptic Seizure?

There are many potential triggers for an epileptic seizure, and it is unfortunately not always possible to be sure exactly why one has occurred. However, there are numerous described causes, and they tend to be more or less likely based on the person’s age. Some of the major triggers include the following:

  • Strokes
  • Trauma
  • Brain tumours
  • Central nervous system (CNS) infections
  • Severe dehydration
  • Alcohol intoxication and other drug overdoses
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Complications during pregnancy

Contrary to popular belief, epileptic seizures triggered by light activity (such as strobe lighting) are very uncommon indeed, and generally account for only a very small fraction of events.

How Are They Treated?

To find out more about how patients suffering from an epileptic seizure can be cared for, and when emergency medical attention should be sought, then please read our dedicated first aid article on the subject here. We also recommend visiting our page on the Primary Survey course that we offer. This survey is intended to cover best practice response to a first aid situation.

Related resources

Alex Bateman - Virtual College

Author: Alex Bateman

Alex is interested in the strategic application of learning and development. In particular how organisations can promote engagement with ongoing learning campaigns. He spends his spare time renovating his Victorian house. Ask him about his floors, I dare you.

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