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Just diagnosed

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is defined as a tendency to have epileptic seizures. Usually you won’t be diagnosed with epilepsy unless you’ve had more than one seizure.

There are loads of things you might feel when you’re told you have epilepsy. You might:

  • Feel in shock
  • Feel relieved that you finally know what’s happening to you
  • Feel angry
  • Feel worried
  • Want to deny that it could be true

 However it feels for you, it’ll probably take some time for you to get your head round it. You’re likely to have lots of questions. Having some facts to hand about epilepsy will hopefully help you start coming to terms with your diagnosis. You may feel like you’re the only person in the world this is happening to. Not so. In the UK about 51,000 people under 17 have epilepsy.

What are seizures?

Our brains control everything we do. Electrical activity is happening in our brain all the time. A seizure happens when there’s a sudden and intense burst of this electrical activity. This interrupts the way the brain normally works and the brain’s messages get mixed up. It can make our body feel different or do strange things that we can’t control.  

What causes epilepsy?

There are a number of reasons why people have epilepsy. For example, they might have, or have had, any of the following:

  • A brain injury or infection
  • A type of epilepsy that runs in families

For most people there’s no explanation why they have epilepsy.

What happens during a seizure?

Doctors changed the way they talk about different seizures in 2017. Now they group seizures according to 3 things:

  • Where they start in the brain
  • Whether your awareness is changed and
  • Whether they involve movement

There are loads of different types of seizures. Here are some of the more common seizure types.

Focal seizures

What happens to you during a focal seizure depends on which part of the brain the seizure happens in. This is because different areas of the brain control movements, body functions, feelings and reactions. You might have just one symptom during a focal seizure. Or you might have a few of them.

There are 2 types of focal seizure

1 Focal aware seizure

A focal aware seizure would be something like a strange feeling or sensation. Your consciousness wouldn’t change at all. These used to be called simple partial seizures.

2 Focal impaired awareness

Focal impaired awareness is when your consciousness changes and you probably won’t feel connected to what’s happening around you. These used to be called complex partial seizures.

There are 2 groups of symptoms for focal seizures:

Motor symptoms

These are when you move as part of a seizure.

Non-motor symptoms

These are when you don’t move as part of a seizure.

We have a list of some of the things you might feel with a non-motor focal seizure.

Tonic-clonic seizures 

Tonic-clonic seizures can have a generalised onset. This means they affect both sides of the brain from the start. Or they can start in one side of the brain and then spread to affect both sides. When this happens it’s called a focal to bilateral tonic-clonic seizure.  This used to be called secondary generalised epilepsy.

In a tonic-clonic seizure your body stiffens, all the air is forced out of your lungs, you fall to the ground and jerk. Sometimes you might wet yourself. You may have no idea it’s going to happen. After the seizure has stopped you’ll still feel quite groggy for a while. It usually takes a few hours to recover fully. You may often want to have a long sleep after a tonic-clonic seizure. And you might have a headache and generally ache a lot for a few days afterwards.

Absence seizures

Absence seizures are generalised, so they affect both halves of your brain from the start. They usually only last for a few seconds. Absences can look just like day dreaming, except that you can’t snap out of them. Sometimes people don’t notice you’re having absences for quite a while. It’s possible to have up to a hundred of them through the day. If this has been happening to you, you might have felt like it was really difficult to make sense of things happening around you. This will be because you were missing out on a lot of information.

Myoclonic seizures 

Myoclonic seizures are also called myoclonic jerks. They can be generalised onset, meaning both sides of the brain are affected from the start, or they can be focal onset, meaning just one side is affected. They usually only last for a few seconds. Myoclonic seizures are sudden, short-lasting jerks that can affect some or all or your body. The jerking can be very mild, like a twitch, or it can be very forceful. It may not sound like much, but they can be dangerous if you are holding a hot drink or something sharp, for example.

A few people also have non-epileptic or dissociative seizures.

Find out more about all seizure types

If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. If you are unable to access the internet, please contact the Epilepsy Action Helpline on freephone 0808 800 5050.

Event Date: 
Thursday 26 November 2015 - 13:43

Epilepsy Action would like to thank epilepsy specialist nurses Neil Williamson at University Hospital Lewisham and Ruth McNulty at St Luke’s Hospital, Bradford for their contribution to this information. They have declared no conflict of interest.

This information has been produced under the terms of Epilepsy Action's information quality standards.

  • Updated June 2018
    To be reviewed June 2021

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