Seizure vs. Seizure Disorders: What's the Difference?

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Author: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

What is a seizure (definition)?

A seizure and a seizure disorder are not the same. A seizure is single occurrence of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain, usually for short time span. It can cause numerous signs and symptoms like convulsions, thought disturbances, loss of consciousness, and/or other symptoms. Usually, doctors consider seizures a symptom of a diseaseEpilepsy is a chronic disorder of recurrent unprovoked seizures, and is one type of seizure disorder. In epilepsy, the convulsion is a sudden, violent irregular movement of a limb of the body caused by involuntary contraction of muscles usually associated with epilepsy and/or toxic agents. 

What is a seizure disorder (definition)?

A seizure disorder is a medical condition (one of about 40) characterized by episodes of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain, thus producing symptoms that include two or more seizures. Doctors separate the disorders from each other by their potential causes and their own set of symptoms due to the affected area in the brain.

What are the types and symptoms of seizures?

1. Generalized seizures result in loss of consciousness.

  • Motor: Grand mal seizures (also called tonic-clonic with muscle jerks or spasms) and have signs and symptoms of stiffness of muscles (tonic), relaxed muscles (atonic), muscles that cause sporadic short jerking of body or limbs (myoclonic), and repetitive shaking or jerking of the body (clonic).
  • Non-motor (absence): Symptoms include staring into space, sometimes with eye blinking.

2. Partial or focal seizures result in either no loss of consciousness or confusion for a few minutes.

  • Aware: Twitching and/or sensation change
  • Impaired awareness: No loss of consciousness, but you become confused for a few minutes

3. Unknown onset seizure

  • Unclassified: It may share questionable features of generalized and/or focal seizures.
  • Motor: Involving musculature
  • Non-motor: Involving awareness

What are the types of seizure disorders? Are the signs and symptoms the same?

There are about 40 different types of named seizure disorders. However, all of the seizure disorders fit into one of the three seizure types listed previously. They differ from each other by some changes in the symptoms they produce. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to describe all types of seizure disorders, an example of how they are given names may give insight as to how their symptoms differ. For example:

  • Simple partial seizure disorders differ from person to person depending upon the part of the brain affected.
  • Benign Rolandic epilepsy in children causes tongue twitching, and may interfere with speech and cause drooling.
  • Catamenial epilepsy refers to seizures that occur in relation to the menstrual cycle.
  • Atonic seizures cause symptoms like falling usually not associated with loss of consciousness.
  • Absence seizures cause a short loss of consciousness with little or no symptoms.
  • Clonic seizures cause rhythmic jerks that involve both sides of the body simultaneously.
  • Tonic seizures cause a stiffening of the muscles
  • Febrile seizures usually occur in children between 6 months and 5 years of age. They are common in toddlers. 

Other symptoms of seizure disorders may include:

  1. Convulsions
  2. Eye blinking
  3. The lips may slightly jerk and move.
  4. Sudden loss of muscle tone
  5. The head drops suddenly
  6. The person cries out
  7. The person falls to the ground
  8. Changes in tastes or smells
  9. Biting the tongue
  10. The person cannot answer questions.
  11. Thought disturbances
  12. Eye rolling
  13. The person involuntarily urinates or has a bowel movement.

With these few examples, you can understand the complexity of seizure disorders and their symptoms.

Will I have to limit my activities after having a seizure? Can I drive?

Until your seizures are controlled, you should not do activities where loss of consciousness could be life threatening. For example, avoid driving, swimming, climbing, operating power tools, or taking a bath in a bathtub until about six months after becoming seizure free. Some states require you to be free of seizures up to one year before you can drive.

Quick GuideEpilepsy: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Epilepsy: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Epilepsy Symptoms and Signs

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that belongs to a group of over 40 seizure disorders. It's not contagious and it's not caused by a mental illness or disability. Seizures are a symptom of epilepsy. When a person with epilepsy has a seizure, they have symptoms like convulsions; muscle spasms; strange sensations, emotions, or behavior; and loss of consciousness.

REFERENCE: CDC. "Epilepsy Basics." Updated: Apr 13, 2017.

How long do seizures last?

Although most seizures stop spontaneously after several minutes (average is about 1- 2 minutes), there are conditions that may cause brain damage and/or life-threatening situations due to seizures. Status epilepticus (seizures lasting 5 or more minutes or if there is more than one seizure within five minutes) is a medical emergency; call 911 as the patient needs emergency treatment, usually with an anticonvulsant such as lorazepam (Ativan), given intravenously.

How are seizures and seizure disorders treated and managed?

If you know the cause of your seizures or seizure disorder (such as alcohol intake or cocaine use, low blood sugar, and encephalitis), you should stop what's triggering them and/or treat any underlying medical conditions. For example, stop drinking alcohol and/or abusing legal or illegal drugs; and manage your blood sugar if you have diabetes. Take your medication as your doctor or other health care professional has prescribed. Seizures that do not respond to treatment may cause you and your medical team (primary care doctor, neurologist, and neurosurgeon) to consider surgery or nerve stimulation treatment.

Can seizures or seizures disorders be prevented?

Depending upon the cause of the seizure and/or seizure disorder, the chances of reducing or preventing some of them is possible. You can do this by avoiding any known potential causes or triggers of your seizures, like drinking excessive alcohol or using cocaine and other illegal drugs. You should take your medicine as your doctor has prescribed to reduce the chance of developing another seizure. For some patients, brain surgery may eliminate seizures by removing the epileptic focus the brain tissue. Vagus nerve stimulation is another potential way to prevent some seizures. However, none of these treatments provides 100% prevention. In addition, it is difficult to prevent seizures caused by birth defects, injuries, strokes, or tumors.

REFERENCES:

CDC. "Types of Seizures." Updated: Apr 10, 2017.
<https://www.cdc.gov/epilepsy/basics/types-of-seizures.htm>

Epilepsy Foundation. "Types of Seizures." Updated: May 2017.
<http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/types-seizures>

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Reviewed on 6/20/2017
References
REFERENCES:

CDC. "Types of Seizures." Updated: Apr 10, 2017.
<https://www.cdc.gov/epilepsy/basics/types-of-seizures.htm>

Epilepsy Foundation. "Types of Seizures." Updated: May 2017.
<http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/types-seizures>

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