Epilepsy vs. Seizures

Epilepsy is characterized by a seizure or a sudden electrical brain disturbance that causes a change of behavior, feelings or movements in a person. An epileptic seizure may cause a person to have convulsions or involuntary muscle spasms that cause the body to shake uncontrollably.

What Is the Difference Between Epilepsy and Seizures?

Seizures can happen without epilepsy, but epilepsy always involves seizures, even if they are not obvious. The major types of epileptic seizures are:

  • Generalized seizures — affect both brain sides
    • Absence seizures (petit mal) - the person suddenly stops and stares into space, seemingly daydreaming. Some people with this condition may make repetitive movements, such as chewing, rhythmic blinking or rapid breathing.
    • Tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures) - usually characterized by convulsions or sudden muscle jerks. A person with this condition may groan or cry out, lose consciousness, fall to the ground and start convulsing.
  • Focal seizures (partial seizures) — happen in just one brain area
    • Simple focal seizures - can cause twitching, strange taste or other changes in sensation.
    • Complex focal seizures - can involve impaired consciousness and automatisms or involuntary, repetitive movements.
    • Secondary generalized seizures - start in one part of the brain and then spread to another part of the brain.

Are All Seizures Considered Epilepsy?

Since not all epileptic attacks involve convulsions, epilepsy can be challenging to diagnose. Some people may suddenly zone out during a seizure, while others may display episodes of behaviors that look like epileptic seizures but are not caused neurologically.

Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) look like epileptic seizures, but they have psychological causes and are not neurological. Video electroencephalogram (EEG) is a reliable method to diagnose PNES. It records the brain’s electrical activity before, during and after a seizure. PNES treatment addresses the underlying psychiatric or psychological disorder that may be causing it.

How Is Epilepsy Diagnosed?

It is recommended that you see a doctor if you suspect that your child is having seizures or is having unexplained attacks. Your child’s pediatrician will ask questions about your child’s medical history. It may help to ask your child’s caretakers to keep an eye out for any symptoms of seizures. If possible, and with consent, it also may help if you have a video of what you believe to be a seizure.

Your child’s pediatrician will refer your child to a neurologist for a complete neurological exam if they believe your child may be experiencing seizures. This neurological exam measures how well your child’s nervous system is functioning. An EEG test may be recommended to look for changes in your child’s brain’s electrical activity that may indicate seizures. Your child may also have to undergo brain imaging scans to look for changes in the brain structure or other abnormalities that may cause seizures.

Can Epilepsy Be Cured?

There are no known cures for epilepsy, but appropriate medications, surgical procedures and other options may relieve pain and manage symptoms. If your child has been diagnosed with epilepsy, your child’s doctor will create a treatment plan that considers their health condition, medical exam results and other factors. Medications are highly effective in controlling the seizures of approximately 70% of patients by reducing the brain cells’ tendency to send confusing and excessive electrical signals.

Treatment options for a patient depend on the seizure type, epilepsy and other factors. Patients with epilepsy resistant to medications are often referred to specialized epilepsy centers to receive further treatment. Do not be afraid to ask questions as it pertains to your child. It helps to be well-informed about the condition and work with your child’s medical team and loved ones to create a care plan that works best for your child.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Epilepsy Foundation
Epilepsy Ontario
National Library of Medicine

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