Signs and Symptoms of Epilepsy

Epilepsy monitoring
What are the symptoms of epilepsy?. Keith Brofsky / Getty Images

What are the signs and symptoms of epilepsy?

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is medical condition characterized by recurrent, disorganized, abnormal electrical firing in brain cells, which can disrupt the normal functioning of the brain. This disruption can cause recurrent seizures, which is the main symptom of epilepsy. While these seizures are usually caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, they can manifest very differently from person to person.

For instance, one type of seizure may cause a brief loss of consciousness, whereas another seizure type may cause uncontrollable jerking of the entire body.

Even though there are many different types of seizures, an individual person with epilepsy often has seizures which are similar each time they occur.

Epilepsy and Seizures

There are many reasons why it is important for you to talk to your health care providers about the specific symptoms of your seizures. Understanding what your seizures are like will help your neurologist select the most appropriate treatment to manage your seizures.

While understanding the symptoms of your seizures is important, most people suffering from epilepsy do not remember their seizures or what was happening to them before their seizure occurred. In this case, it is important to invite family and friends to give an account of how your seizures presented and any other information related to it.

Of course, this is totally up to you, and you can choose who may and may not talk to your physician. For the most part, however, hearing a description from your loved ones who are with you at the time of a seizure can help to better characterize your seizures.

Symptoms of Epilepsy

There are several different symptoms people with epilepsy may have, and these may occur either before, during, or after a seizure.

Not everyone has all of the symptoms listed below.  The symptoms which you experience will depend on the type of seizures you are having. Some common symptoms of seizures in people with epilepsy include:

Contraction, or Jerking, of Body Muscles

Usually, when you think of seizures, the characteristic thought is that of every muscle contracting in the body. This is referred to as a grand mal seizure. However, involuntary muscle contractions can also occur in isolated areas of the body. For instance, muscle contractions in an arm may cause you to drop an object you are carrying. Muscle contractions in the legs may cause someone to drop to the ground, causing further injuries.

Loss of Consciousness

Some seizures may cause a loss of consciousness which may last for a few seconds to hours. With grand mal seizures, the loss of unconsciousness often occurs after tonic and then clonic activity. With some seizure types, the only sign visible to a bystander may be the sudden (apparent) loss of consciousness.

Fainting is also important as it is one of the more common reasons behind a misdiagnosis of epilepsy.


Weakness can occur in any seizure type and in any area of the body. For instance, weakness can either occur in an arm, a leg or both.

Most often, a person has weakness in the same part of the body with recurrent seizures. Weakness in one part of the body may look very much like a stroke, but resolves when the seizure is over. This can be even more confusing, because strokes can sometimes cause seizures.


Anxiety is commonly experienced before a seizure with most seizure types and can signal a seizure is about to occur. Some people experience intense anxiety, fear, or a sense of impending doom. There are many different types of auras which people may experience, yet while there is a great variety, aura's tend to be the same for an individual person from seizure to seizure.

Some people also experience nausea, blurry vision, a headache, or dizziness before a seizure. Yet other symptoms may occur before a seizure as well, and this is the basis of having a seizure alert dog who can sense some of these symptoms even before you are aware of them yourself.


Staring out into space is a symptom experienced by individuals who have absence seizures (also called petit mal seizures.) Often, these individuals appear to be briefly daydreaming or lost in thought when, in fact, they are actually experiencing a seizure. Staring behavior usually lasts for only a few seconds and may be accompanied by blinking or repetitive movements, such as movement of the mouth or fingers.

Purposeless or Repetitive Movements

Repeated movements without any obvious purpose may include actions such as picking lint off of a shirt, repetitive shifting, repetitive tapping of the fingers, repetitive chewing or repeating words. These movements, called automotisms, can occur before a seizure occurs or during some seizures.

Uncommon Signs of Epilepsy

The old adage that the sky is the limit is fitting for people with epilepsy symptoms. There are a whole host of symptoms which may be due to abnormal neuronal firing in the brain, and some of these are even more difficult to differentiate from behavioral and other mental health disorders than the stare of epilepsy. From unusual thoughts, to hearing and seeing things not present, to symptoms of repeated flatulence and vomiting (abdominal epilepsy) this "short-circuit" behavior in the brain can cause confusing symptoms. Unfortunately, in addition to coping with the symptoms, those who experience these types of seizures must sometimes face the stigma and lack of understanding so present for those with uncommon and rare conditions.

Symptoms of Common Types of Seizures

As noted earlier, the symptoms a person with epilepsy experiences depends on the type of seizures they experience. There are several different types of seizures with a few of the more common including:

  • Tonic clonic seizures - These seizures are characterized by muscle contractions and loss of consciousness which usually comes on quite suddenly.. The tonic phase is when muscles become stiff. The clonic phase is characterized by repetitive contraction and relaxation of muscles. Grand mal seizures are generalized tonic clonic seizures.
  • Absence seizures (also called petit mal seizures) - These seizures may not always be recognized as seizures at first. They may begin gradually, with a person staring off into space. During this period of time, a person may or not respond. Since a person with this type of seizure may just appear inattentive or distracted, it can be difficult to distinguish these seizures from behavioral disorders.

Bottom Line and Prevention of Seizures with Epilepsy

It's important for you and your loved ones to be aware of the symptoms of seizures if you should have them, but as with most medical conditions, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Learn about why skipping a dose of your epilepsy medications can be dangerous, along with a few tips for remembering your meds. It's also a good idea to check out these ​tips on coping with epilepsy every day.

For friends and families, take just a moment to learn about how to keep someone having a seizure safe. Most damage to the body from epilepsy occurs due to falls related to seizures than from the disorder itself.


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Kliegman, Robert M., Bonita Stanton, St Geme III Joseph W., Nina Felice. Schor, Richard E. Behrman, and Waldo E. Nelson. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2015. Print.