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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.

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This resource is freely available as part of Epilepsy Action’s commitment to improving life for all those affected by epilepsy.

On average it costs £414 to produce an advice and information page – if you have valued using this resource, please text FUTURE to 70500 to donate £3 towards the cost of our future work. Terms and conditions. Thank you


We can provide references and information on the source material we use to write our epilepsy advice and information pages. Please contact our Epilepsy Helpline by email at helpline@epilepsy.org.uk.
Code: 
B004.03

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 10 comments or add yours

Comments

hi
when i was about seventeen i had a fit and some mysonic jerks i was under a lot of stress at the time i had one neurolagist say i was epileptic and another say i was'nt i spent fifteen years on medication though befor i was told i came off of the tablets and have had no trouble for thirty years
in october 2012 i woke for work with a severe pain in the groin and went from october 2012 till october 2013 before surgery cured the constant pain in febuary 2013 i went to my gp for pain releif and he gave me gamapentin 300mg three times a day but after a few weeks i had to go back as it was'nt doing the job i was getting light headed dizzy and blurred vision i drive a van and do roof repairs for a living so they said stop them i stopped the first ok but when i stopped the second i had a fit and evrey time i tried to stop the second i had a fit i've had eight in all and am now told i'm epileptic and they got me to change my tablets from 600mg of gamapentin to 100mg of lamitol this caused fit number seven at this point my heart rate would'nt come down so i got put on beta blockers and when they ran out i had fit number eight all the tests i've have had have all come back clear does this sound like epilepsy it does'nt to me and i now looking at my job witch i am not allowed to do

Submitted by barry malcolm j... on

Dear Barry

This sounds like a confusing and stressful situation to be in. As epilepsy advisers, I regret we can not suggest what is happening to you.  This is something that you will need to discuss with your doctor.

Epilepsy is an unpredictable condition and unfortunately there can be many years between seizures. As there is so much to consider, including your driving and livelihood, it’s important you are being seen by an epilepsy specialist. An epilepsy specialist is generally a neurologist with a special interest in epilepsy. They should review your history and recent events to help diagnose what is happening.

I hope your doctor can give you some answers very soon. If we can be of any more help, please feel free to contact us again, either by email helpline@epilepsy.org.uk or the Epilepsy Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050.

Regards

Diane Wallace

Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane on

I have been having seizures in my sleep since March and went for an eeg sat last week.when dining the deep breathing exercise I started twitching and then both legs shook like having a electric shock. After it calmed down I had to close my eyes again but I felt very odd and my eyes and forehead were twitching frantically. Do you think this is epilepsy my sister and auntie have it so was wondering. Also do I have to tell dvla as the doctor at the eeg asked if i drive and I said not at the moment I'm getting over a large bilateral pe.

Submitted by sarah williams on

Hi Sarah

Thanks for your question. We are not medically trained, so couldn’t comment on if your episode was epilepsy. However, the EEG will have recorded the episode you’ve described. So hopefully it will give an explanation of what you experienced.  It’s not clear from your question who is assessing your episodes. Ideally it should be an epilepsy specialist, usually a neurologist; and they should be able indicate if it was epilepsy related. You could speak with your doctor for a referral to an epilepsy specialist, if you haven’t yet been given one.

The driving rules are that if you have a seizure or a suspected seizure you have to stop driving, notify the DVLA and surrender your licence to them. Usually you would be allowed to drive when you have been seizure free for a year. It can be very confusing, so please see our driving section which outlines the driving rules.

Sacha
Epilepsy Action Advice & Information Team

Submitted by Sacha@Epilepsy ... on

I have just had a TC after about 10 years after my previous one. i was in a retailers and I started to feel strange getting flashing images, almost dreams then next thing I remember i am in the back of an ambulance... It has left me completely paranoid about going out, I have had funny feelings over the last 10 years but these generally pass not sure why this went fully through. i have been referred to specialists in january and had a blood test at the docs. I am forcing myself to carry on as normal but its taking all my mental strength not to just hide away.

Submitted by Teresa on

It’s understandable that you are anxious and worried following your seizure. To go 10 years without a seizure and then one to happen out of the blue must knock your confidence.

It’s good you are trying to carry on. Hopefully with a few adjustments you can. We have some safety information available on our website that you may like to view.  If you don’t already you may wish to start wearing identity jewellery or carry an epilepsy awareness card when you go out. This will let other people know that you have epilepsy and what to do if you have a seizure.

If you think it will be helpful to talk or contact people who have had a similar experience, we have an active presence on social media . You can also talk to one of us on the helpline. Our Advice and Information Officers will listen and hopefully be able to give you some friendly and confidential advice. You can email helpline@epilepsy.org.uk or phone freephone 0808 800 5050.

Regards

Diane
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane@Epilepsy ... on

Hi I'm hoping you can help shed some light for me - I'm 42 and recently had a strange episode where I suddenly felt a spasm down my right side I needs to grip on to something to stop my self from I'm not sure what but afterwards I had a muzzy feeling in my head which has been there on and off for 4 days - I had the same thing yesterday totally sudden - could this epilepsy?

Submitted by Diane on

Hi Diane

Thanks for your comment. Your concern is understandable. It can be very unnerving to have unexplained episodes like this. Many things can cause symptoms similar to epilepsy. We are not medically trained, so could not tell you if your experiences might be related to epilepsy. It would be best to talk to your family doctor (GP) about it. They can then consider whether you might need further investigations.

I hope that helps

Sacha, Epilepsy Action Advice & Information Team

Submitted by Sacha@Epilepsy ... on

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.

Grace
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Grace, Epilepsy... on