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What are generalized seizures?

There are two types of generalized seizures: convulsive (muscle jerking) and non-convulsive. Non-convulsive seizures fall within several subgroups. The following is a description of some of the non-convulsive and convulsive seizures and their symptoms.

Absence Seizures: Also known by the older term of Petit Mal, absence seizures fall into three groups: simple, complex and atypical. Simple seizures are the blank stare seizures. Complex seizures are ones that involve a change in muscle activity, like repeated eye blinks, slight tasting movements of the mouth, hand movements like rubbing the fingers together and contraction or relaxation of the muscles. Simple and complex absence seizures typically last 10 to 20 seconds, and the person is not aware the seizure is taking place because their level of consciousness is impaired. Once the seizure subsides, the person is immediately conscious and aware. However, he or she will not remember the seizure and may experience memory lapses of the time period just before and just after the seizure. Simple and complex absence seizures are rare in adults, and typically happen to children between the ages of 6 and 14.

Atypical means unusual or not typical, so atypical absence seizures are not like simple or complex absence seizures because the person will stare as they would in any other absence seizure, but is often somewhat responsive. A seizure can also be accompanied by eye blinking or slight jerking movements of the lips. The behavior can also be hard to distinguish from the person's usual behavior, especially in the case of people of lower intelligence. Another factor that distinguishes the atypical absence seizures from the simple and complex ones is that they can last anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds with a gradual beginning and ending. These types of seizures typically begin before the age of 6 and continue into adulthood. They usually affect people of lower intelligence who also have other types of seizures that are difficult to control.

Tonic Seizures: Muscle “tone” is the muscle's normal tension at rest. In a tonic seizure, the muscle tone is greatly increased and the muscles contract (suddenly stiffen) and become rigid. These seizures most often occur when the person is sleeping. Tonic seizures usually involve most or all of the brain and affect both sides of the body. Tonic seizures are common in people who have the Lennox-Gastaut epilepsy syndrome. The person experiencing them typically remains conscious through the course of the seizure. If the person has the seizure while standing, he/she will usually lose his/her balance and fall. Tonic seizures usually last around 20 seconds. If a person has a few of these seizures close together, they may feel tired for about 15 minutes after the seizures subside.

Atonic Seizures: These are opposite of tonic seizures because atonic means “without tone.” Instead of muscles contracting, they relax and suddenly lose strength. One of several things can happen to the person experiencing this type of seizure: drooping eyelids, nodding head, dropping things and even falling. This is why this seizure is also known as a “drop attack” or “drop seizure.” Another name for this seizure is “akinetic,” meaning “without movement.” The person remains conscious through the course of the atonic seizure, and it usually lasts less than 15 seconds. Atonic seizures usually begin in childhood and go through adulthood. Since these seizures typically cause injuries, people who suffer from them may wear a helmet or choose another form of protection.

Clonic Seizures: Clonus is a condition involving the involuntary contraction and relaxation of a muscle — repeated, rhythmic muscle twitches or jerks. Restraining or repositioning the affected arm or leg does not help. Clonic seizures involve involuntary muscle jerking. However, these types of seizures are very rare. A person is more likely have a tonic-clonic seizure that starts with the tonic symptoms of muscles stiffening. However, tonic-clonic seizures can sometimes start with the clonic phase of involuntary muscle jerking. This is called a “clonic-tonic-clonic seizure.” Clonic seizures happen to people of all ages, including newborns and last for varying amounts of time.

Tonic-clonic Seizures : Tonic-clonic seizures are convulsive seizures that are a combination of tonic and clonic seizures. These are also known by the older term of Grand Mal. Tonic-clonic seizures usually begin with the tonic phase of:

  • Stiffening of muscles;
  • Often a cry or groan;
  • Loss of consciousness and a fall to the ground.

Subsequently, the clonic phase sets in where the arms and usually the legs begin to jerk rapidly and rhythmically, bending and relaxing at the elbows, hips, and knees. This phase typically lasts less than 5 minutes. The jerking tends to slows down bit by bit before it stops. During the course of the seizure the person may:

  • Drool or foam at the mouth;
  • Bite a tongue, cheek or lip causing the drool or foam to be a little bloody;
  • Turn a little blue in the face;
  • Experience incontinence (loss of urine or stool) when the seizure subsides and the body starts to relax.

After the seizure, consciousness returns slowly. A person may feel drowsy, confused, agitated, or depressed for minutes to hours (post-ictal period). Some people have headaches. After this, a person may then feel restless. Tonic-clonic seizures affect children and adults of all ages. If the seizure lasts more than 30 minutes or if three seizures occur with no normal period in between, it could be an indication of a highly dangerous condition called convulsive status epilepticus, which requires emergency treatment.

Myoclonic Seizures: Myoclonic seizures are just brief shock-like muscle jerks that last a second or two. The word myoclonic is broken down like this: “myo” means muscle and “clonus” means rapid alternating contraction and relaxation of a muscle (jerking or twitching). Children and adults of all ages, including people without epilepsy can experience occasional myoclonus like a quick muscle jerk. However, epileptic myclonic seizures usually result in abnormal involuntary muscle jerks on both sides of the body.