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The Many Faces of Seizures

July 29, 2020

Imagine a seizure. What do you see?

My guess is an assortment of frightening symptoms: violent shaking of the limbs, falling to the ground, eyes blank or even blood from the person biting their lips.

But ask a person who experiences seizures due to epilepsy, they might have an entirely different answer. Some, for example, will say they just “blank out” for a bit; others say they see strange light patterns.

For ages, seizures have frightened those inexperienced with it. Some cultures even deem it as a sort of “demonic possession,” unfortunately adding to its stigma. But as a main symptom of epilepsy, seizures are hardly rare. Over 6.5 million people in the US have epilepsy–that’s more than 1 in 26 people. There’s a huge chance that at some point, you’ll encounter someone living with the neurological disorder.

But here the thing: seizures and epilepsy come in many different forms–at last count, more than 40–which look very different depending on the specific type. Knowing these different symptoms can help you recognize these symptoms, and potentially save a life.


To start: how many types of seizures are there, anyways?

It’s still difficult to classify seizures into groups. After all, one size doesn’t fit all. But it’s incredibly important, because different types of seizures can have different treatments. Sometimes, less dramatic types of seizures can be overlooked, especially at home.

For now, scientists classify seizures based on a few things: where in the brain the seizures start, whether a person has impaired awareness during the seizure, and the presence or absence of movements—if there are repeated muscle spasms, jerking, limpness, or rigidity.

In general, seizures happen because the brain’s electrical communication misfires. Depending on where this happens, doctors usually classify seizures into three main types: focal, generalized, and unknown–the latter being if it’s hard to tell where the brain temporarily had a hiccup.

Let’s break it down just a bit more.

  • Focal seizures, previously called partial seizures, start on one side of the brain and may or may not cause impaired awareness and motor symptoms.
  • Generalized seizures start on both sides of the brain and typically cause impaired awareness.
  • When the cause of seizures is unclear due to a lack of information, they may be classified as “unknown.” Unknown seizures may or may not involve motor symptoms.

The takeaway is epilepsy and seizures are really complicated. That’s a problem, because it makes accurately tracking seizures difficult, especially from home. But being able to track seizures is extremely important. Depending on seizure frequency, people with epilepsy generally only see their doctors every month–or even longer–so they need to take their health into their own hands.

The best tool to do so? Seizure diaries.

Stay tuned for a future post where we dig into the-ins-and-outs of seizure diaries, and how we here at Novela are bringing the age-old tool into the 21st century–in the form of a sleek, multifunctional smartwatch.

Image credit: Ivan, CC By 2.0

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