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Diagnosing epilepsy

This information is relevant to people who live in the UK.

Diagnosing epilepsy

There are a number of medical conditions that can cause symptoms similar to epilepsy, which can make it difficult to diagnose. So, an epilepsy specialist will make a diagnosis based mainly on your symptoms.

You can help the specialist to make a diagnosis by:

  • Taking a detailed diary of your seizures to your appointments, with dates, times and a description of what happened, and how you were feeling before and after
  • Taking someone who has seen your seizures, or a written description from someone who has seen your seizures, to your appointments
  • Taking some video clips of your seizures to the appointment, if this is possible

Tests used in the diagnosis of epilepsy

The epilepsy specialist may arrange for you to have some tests at the hospital. These include EEG tests and CT or MRI scans. None of these tests can prove that you do or do not have epilepsy. However, they can sometimes give useful information, such as the cause of your epilepsy and the type of seizures you have.

EEG (electroencephalogram)

An EEG test measures the electrical activity that is happening in your brain. During the test, an EEG specialist places harmless electrodes on your scalp, using a special glue or sticky tape. The electrodes are connected to the EEG machine, which records the electrical signals in your brain onto a computer.

An EEG only shows what is happening in your brain at the time the test is being done. It is not able to show what has already happened or what is going to happen in the future. So, if there is no epileptic activity in your brain at the time the test is done, the EEG will show clear results. However, EEG tests can sometimes provide useful information to doctors

CT scans (computerised tomography)

A CT scan is a type of X-ray that shows the physical structure of the brain. During the scan, you'll usually lie on your back on a flat bed. The CT scanner, which looks like a giant thick ring, will rotate around your head, taking X-rays.

A CT scan doesn’t show if you have epilepsy. However it may show if there is anything in your brain, such as a scar, or damaged area, that could cause epilepsy. Not everyone will need to have a CT scan.

MRI scans (magnetic resonance imaging)

An MRI scanner uses radio waves and a magnetic field to show the physical structure of the brain. During the scan, you lie inside the MRI machine, which is a very large tube.

An MRI scanner is more powerful than a CT scanner. It has a higher chance of showing something in your brain that could cause epilepsy. Not everyone will need to have an MRI scan.

Blood tests

These are used to check your general health, and to look for any medical conditions that might be causing epilepsy. They can also be used to find out if your seizures are not caused by epilepsy, but another medical condition, such as diabetes.


Epilepsy Action would like to thank thank Dr John Paul Leach, consultant neurologist, Southern General Hospital, Glasgow for his contribution.

Dr John Paul Leach has declared no conflict of interest.

This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.

  • Updated April 2014
    To be reviewed April 2017

Comments: read the 8 comments or add yours


My daughter who is 12 soon 13, she has perfime taste, dizziness someyimes her legs jerk or face twitches. Sometimes she gets thay light headed she goes off her feet and shakes. But it mostly happens at school. She also stares into space for about 5 minutes. These episodes last anything from 10 minutes to over an hour. The consultant isnt much help as he's sauing its stress, even though we have told him she isnt stressed. She just had an MRI and waiting for EEG. But he says nothing will show on them. He said her episodes are not typical epilepsy. Xan someone help pkease

Submitted by Rachel Brooker on

Hi Rachel

That sounds like a really worrying situation for you and your daughter. We’re not medically trained so we can’t say if what’s happening to your daughter is related to epilepsy. Epilepsy can be difficult to diagnose, and it’s possible to have symptoms that look like epilepsy but are related to something else. The consultant will use tests like MRI and EEG to help him come to a diagnosis, but the main thing he will look at is your daughter’s symptoms. It can help to keep a diary of your daughter’s symptoms, noting down what happens, when it happens and how long for. If possible you could also film her during an episode so you can show this to the consultant.

If the consultant thinks the symptoms don’t point to epilepsy, he is likely to look for other causes like stress. If you feel sure stress isn’t a factor this would be something to talk to the consultant about again. You could ask him why he thinks the symptoms are caused by stress, and what treatment he would suggest. It’s worth bearing in mind that some people have seizures that look like epileptic seizures, but they happen for psychological reasons rather than physical ones. This is called Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder.

If you are not happy with the consultant’s diagnosis, you have a right to ask for a second opinion. We’ve got more information about how to get a second opinion.

I hope this helps and that things improve for your daughter soon.

Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Grace, Epilepsy... on

I have had episodes throughout my life when I have felt confused and not able to think straight. I have made a successful life, good job family etc. I have found these episodes annoying and I thought I was a bit crazy. I went to see my Dr who sent me to see a specialist, mainly because my father and brother are epileptic. The Dr and the specialist did not think there was anything wrong. I went to see specialist today for results of eeg and I have been told I have epilepsy and I must surrender my licence! This has devastated me as I have not had any fits and my job as a midwife means I need to drive. What am I to do?

Submitted by marion greenbank on

Hi Marion
Thanks for your message. It must have been really upsetting to find out that you have epilepsy and that you have to surrender your driving licence.

When you have epilepsy you are covered by the Equality Act. This means your employer must make reasonable adjustments to allow you to do your job. This could include switching you to duties that don’t involve driving, or making sure you can go to appointments with another member of staff who can drive. If you need to get taxis to and from and during work you might be able to get help with the cost of this through the Access to Work scheme.

I can understand it must feel frustrating that you have to surrender your licence when you say you’ve not had any fits. Although you’ve not had full blown tonic-clonic seizures, it’s possible that the episodes of confusion you’ve had were focal seizures. You may be able to get your driving licence back in the future if you become seizure free. We have more information about epilepsy and driving.

If you have any questions or you’d like to talk anything through feel free to get in touch.

Best wishes
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Grace, Epilepsy... on

I have just been diagnosed as Epileleptic after my third seizure, I had two 9yrs ago and one last Saturday after getting off of a plane, I am a Scaffolder of 35 yrs and I am struggling to cope with this diagnosis, I can't believe it's happened to me and I don't understand why, the last two years have been difficult I've had a marriage breakdown and I was forced to sell my dream house of which I've lived and built for 26 yrs, stress is an excuse I've heard thrown about to cover a range of things can it cause epilepsy

Submitted by Wayne Fletcher on

Hi my daughter has had 4 seizures and only had a EEG they said as this is normal she don't have epilepsy but has started her on 100mg of epilepsy medication. My child has not had a MRI and they specialist has not took in to account family history of epilepsy. I am worried as to why she's giving my child a 100ml dose of epilepsy medication if she's so insistent that it's not epilepsy
I believe she has epilepsy and her sibling also has seizures and the specialist isn't taking this in to account either
Please help with any advice

Submitted by karen on

Dear Karen
This sounds very confusing. If you haven’t already, try talk to the doctor again. Ask them to explain what they think is happening and why they have put your daughter on epilepsy medicine. They may be able to reassure you.

An EEG only shows what is happening in your daughter’s brain at the time the test is being done. It’s not able to show what has already happened or what is going to happen in the future. So, if there is no epileptic activity in her brain at the time the test is done, the EEG will show clear results. Even though she may still have epilepsy.

It’s important the doctors take an interest in family history as some types of epilepsy and seizures run in families. We have more information on our inheritance webpage.

If you are still unhappy, talk to your GP about your concerns and ask about other options for your daughter. This may include getting an opinion from a different epilepsy specialist.

If you wish to make a complaint about your care and treatment from your hospital, contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) or the NHS Trust responsible for that hospital.

You can find details of these organisations through the NHS Choices

Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane, Epilepsy... on

I don't know what is wrong with me and my doctor hasn't found out either. I am 51 years and so far have had a CT scan came out fine. I just had a sleep deprived EEG and don't have the results yet. So far my Neorologist seems to think that the pain medicine I have been taking for years is causing all these weird symptoms.. I have chronic pain and have never had any problems from taking my pain medicine and not sure why this could be causing me to fall down for no reason, have shaky hands, feel confused and forget what I am supposed to be doing at the time. I forget things even at the time even in the middle of a conversation? I also have Bi-polar and taken many medications to keep control of my symptoms I have never experienced any of these symptoms that I have been happening for 6 or so months I can remember how long. My hands are trembling right now even before I started typing and this note. I had Brain Anuerysm Surgery just over a year. I am wondering if something can later cause problems after this thyyp of surgery?
I have so many weird symptosmso I am hoping that the results of the eeg test will tell what is wrong with me. My doctor also seems to thinks that my random falling could be caused by problemswith my spine? I had a MRI of my entire spine recently and also don't have there results.'.
I am assuming since I have not heard from my Nurouolgist about either test that they came out fine or not fine but are not a emergency I don't know what and it is driving me crazy. I am positive my pain meds are not causing my symptoms.
I am worried I may have epilepsy? or some other condition if so that it can be fixed or meds will fix

Submitted by Bonnie on