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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.

Pay it forward

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.

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 11 comments or add yours


It's interesting that the EEG is not a guaranteed no to epilepsy. I was given one a number of years back after several suspected seizures, however I didn't have any while I was attached to the EEG. When the results went back the doc said that I definitely DIDN'T have epilepsy and said it was psychological. I'm confused now to say the least! Those notes were misplaced so now that I have had new attacks, they are referring me again! I've had several witnesses now so hopefully that will give a better indication.

Submitted by Lucy Clapham on

I have recently had a seizure during which I had a compound fracture of one of my vertebra due to the spasm of the back muscles. This is only the second fit I have had in 25 years but because I have had 2 I am now classed as epileptic. I had an MRI scan which came back clear but my EEG showed some abnormal activity. I have read now that this is not always a certain diagnosis of epilepsy so I am wondering if I actually am? My first seizure was put down to the fact that I was taking oil of evening primose to help with PMT at the same time as taking the contraceptive pill which is known to cause fits due to the imbalance of hormones. My second fit happened after a stressful train journey which started very early in the morning so I was very tired. I had not eaten and had drunk several cups of strong coffee on the train to 'wake me up'. Could this have possibly been the cause of the second attack and if so does this mean I may not be epileptic despite the EEG? I am taking Lamotrogine to prevent further fits and am not allowed to drive unless I am fit free for 12 months. I am worried that my insurances will now go sky high due to this diagnosis which may be unnecessary. Any ideas please?

Submitted by Cathie Palmer on

Hi Cathie

Diagnosing epilepsy is not something that is always clear cut. A working definition is that it is recurrent seizures. So after 2 seizures it is not unusual that you have been diagnosed with epilepsy. The EEG results would be likely to make a doctor that much more convinced of the diagnosis.

It is unlikely that the coffee would have triggered the seizure. But the tiredness might have. However, this would only trigger a seizure rather than the epilepsy. So there may already have been the likelihood of you having seizures, before the trigger happened. The same explanation applies to the evening primrose and hormone changes.

As you say, once you have been seizure-free for 12 months, you will be able to reapply for your licence. Your car insurance shouldn’t increase then as the DVLA will consider you fit to drive. But if it does, it may be worth shopping around. And checking out the company we work with, in the process.

If you are concerned about travel insurance, we have worked with Insure and go to help them become epilepsy aware and therefore to calculate risk in an informed way.

I really hope that answers some of your questions. But if we can be of any more help, please feel free to contact us again, either by email or the Epilepsy Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050.

Yours sincerely

Epilepsy Action

Submitted by Cherry on

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.


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.

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.


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

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