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What are the Different Types of Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a condition that is unique to each person living with a diagnosis.

With different triggers and different symptoms, every person living with epilepsy experiences seizures differently to the next.  There are different types of epileptic seizures to be aware of with each seizure presenting differently.

Here we’ll tell you a little more about the condition and give some detail about each type of seizure and what to look out for.

What is epilepsy?

In the UK, approximately 87 people get diagnosed with epilepsy each day. It’s estimated that around 600,000 people, or 1 in 100 people, are currently living with the condition in the UK.

So, what is epilepsy? Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain causing seizures in anyone from infants to the elderly. These seizures are known as epileptic seizures.  

They occur due to a surge of neurological electrical activity which temporarily interferes with how the brain works.

Epilepsy is diagnosed after a neurological assessment. This is arranged if the person has had more than one seizure and it’s predicted they could experience more seizures in future.

What causes epilepsy?

Anyone can develop epilepsy at any stage of their life and there are multiple causes of epilepsy. Epilepsy can occur when trauma to the head disrupts the functioning of the brain. Head trauma can include:

Stroke or tumour - A stroke is a bleed or blockage in the blood vessels of the brain that prevents oxygen from reaching different areas in the brain. A tumour is a growth which may cause blockages or place pressure on sections of the brain.

Infection - Certain infections, like meningitis or encephalitis, can affect the brain and cause epilepsy

Head injury - A severe head injury that causes damage to the brain can also be a factor in developing epilepsy

Birth complications - A difficult birth can result in the baby being deprived of oxygen. A lack of oxygen can mean parts of the brain are shut down and unable to develop properly

Genetics - Epilepsy can run in families, indicating that the condition can be inherited.

Although there are many identified causes of epilepsy, the cause remains unknown in around 50% of all cases.


How is epilepsy diagnosed?

To diagnose epilepsy, a doctor will review any symptoms and the person’s medical history. The diagnosis will often begin with a detailed description of the seizures and their characteristics and a physical examination to assess neurological behaviours and ability.

The doctor may then arrange for the person to have a series of tests, including blood tests, an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the electrical activity in the brain, and a variety of brain scans to observe brain structures, identify any abnormalities, and locate areas of activation.

There isn’t one single test that can diagnose epilepsy, however, the outcomes of each assessment will build a picture of what is happening and will help to determine the cause of the seizures.


What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

Seizures are often the most commonly recognised symptom of epilepsy, but there are a few other less obvious symptoms associated with the condition that it’s good to be aware of.

Individuals with epilepsy may experience subtle symptoms in the build-up to or during a seizure, this can include:

  • Short term confusion
  • Staring
  • Uncontrollable jerking of limbs
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Losing awareness of people and the environment around them
  • A sense of fear or anxiety
  • Feelings of déjà vu

These symptoms can vary across individuals depending on the type of epilepsy they have. Once a person experiences symptoms, there is a strong likelihood they’ll have the same symptoms again. This should help the person to recognise a pattern and prepare for managing the symptoms of their seizures in future.


What causes epileptic seizures?

Epileptic seizures are a core characteristic of epilepsy and can be caused by a variety of physical and environmental factors.

By understanding the triggers that cause a seizure, people with epilepsy can avoid certain behaviours or situations that increase their chances of having a seizure. By understanding their unique triggers, people with epilepsy can put measures in place to help prevent or prepare for the onset of a seizure.

Triggers will vary from one person to another, however, some of the most common factors are:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue
  • Stress
  • Alcohol intake
  • Not taking medication

When an epileptic seizure occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, individuals may attribute things like stress or alcohol as the cause of epilepsy. However, it’s most likely that the predisposition for having a seizure was already there, and it was the stress or alcohol that has triggered it.


Types of epileptic seizures

Epilepsy can present differently from person to person, and each person will have their own unique experience of the condition.  Seizures can present with different symptoms, can be categorised into a variety of groups. Here we look at the different types of epileptic seizures in more detail:


Simple partial seizures

Simple partial seizures are sometimes known as focal seizures. During this type of seizure the person is awake and aware of what is happening.  

They may experience feeling ‘unusual’, a tummy flipping sensation, déjà vu, tingling in the limbs, new smells or tastes, feelings of intense fear or anxiety, and stiffness or twitching in their hands or arms. This type of seizure is referred to as an ‘aura’ and is often a warning sign that a further seizure will occur.


Complex partial seizures

During a complex partial seizure, the person is unresponsive and unaware of what is going on.

They may start to make random or unusual body movements such as lip smacking, hand rubbing, making noises, moving their arms, picking or fiddling with clothing or objects, or making repetitive chewing and swallowing actions. Once the seizure is over, the person is likely to have no memory of it.


Tonic-clonic seizures

A tonic-clonic seizure is the type of seizure that most people would associate with epilepsy, and was previously known as ‘grand mal’ seizures.

With this type of seizure, the person enters a tonic stage and will lose consciousness and their body may become stiff with an increased risk of falling. During the clonic stage, the person is likely to experience jerking limbs, a loss of bladder and bowel control, bite the inside of their mouth, and have difficulty breathing.

Tonic-clonic seizure typically last for just a few minutes, and once it is over the person is likely to be tired and confused with no memory of the seizure.


Absence seizures

Absence seizures have more subtle symptoms. They are sometimes known as ‘petit mal’ seizures.

The person with this type of epileptic seizure will stare off into the distance and may look like they’re ‘daydreaming’.

Observers may also notice fluttering eyelids and slight jerking movements of the body. Absence seizures last for just a few seconds, but can occur several times a day.


Myoclonic seizures

Myoclonic seizures present as a quick jerking movement in one or a group of muscles. This type of seizure can often go unidentified as it can be so subtle and over in one or two seconds.

Myoclonic seizures can happen in isolation, or people may experience a few in quick succession, and they often happen when waking up. Myoclonic seizures respond well to treatment, and the person experiencing them is awake and aware of the seizure when it occurs.


Clonic seizures

During a clonic seizure, the person with epilepsy will experience rhythmical and repetitive jerking of body and limbs for a few minutes. They may also lose consciousness and be unaware of what has happened. Experiencing clonic seizures alone is rare, as they’re most often preceded by an initial stiffening tonic seizure.


Tonic seizures

Tonic seizures cause the entire body to stiffen. This sudden stiffness can cause them to lose balance, leaving them at risk of falling and sustaining an injury.

They are most common during sleep, and tend to last no longer than 20 seconds, and the person is usually aware if they’ve experienced a seizure during waking hours.

Atonic seizures

Atonic seizures cause the muscles of the body to relax. The sudden change in muscle tone can result in the person going limp and falling to the floor, because of this they’re sometimes referred to as ‘drop attacks’.

This type of epileptic seizure tends to last no longer than 15 seconds, and the person may feel confused afterwards.

Status epilepticus

Status epilepticus is diagnosed if the person experiences a series of consecutive seizures without regaining consciousness in between or has a seizure that lasts for a prolonged time of five minutes or more.  

This type of seizure can be life-threatening and requires emergency medical treatment by trained medical professionals or highly trained carers.

Travelling with epilepsy

Living with epilepsy shouldn’t mean missing out on seeing the world and travelling to your dream destinations. If you’re thinking of booking a holiday take a look at our travelling with epilepsy checklist to make sure you have all you need to keep your trip as stress-free as possible.

You can also get travel insurance cover for a pre-existing condition like epilepsy so that if you do end up needing medical intervention whilst you’re away you’ll be able to claim from your policy. Find out more about our specialist Epilepsy Travel Insurance, and get a quote for yourself from Medical Travel Compared in just a few minutes.

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