graphic model of a human brain

The dangers of seizures: Why you need immediate treatment

When most people think of seizures, they think of someone unconscious and convulsing. This type of seizure – known as a grand mal seizure – is the kind of seizure portrayed often in television and movies, and it’s not hard to figure out why: It looks dramatic and scary.

But there’s more to epilepsy – a seizure disorder with several variants – you should know. Not all seizures look like a grand mal seizure. They can look vastly different, in fact. Plus, there are devastating side effects and dangers that aren’t as easily portrayed on screen.

A seizure is caused when the brain has a burst of abnormal electrical signals for a short period of time. For some, a seizure can seem more like a minute of confusion, according to Erhan Ergene, MD, a neurologist with the OSF HealthCare Illinois Neurological Institute Epilepsy Center in Peoria. Seizures can cause speech difficulty, confusion, spacing out or memory problems.

“A person suffering a seizure can look normal and awake, but they won’t respond to you,” Dr. Ergene said. “They may perform repetitive motions like lip smacking while they remain unresponsive for 30 seconds to a minute.”

Dangerous but treatable

This may seem like seizures are no big deal, but even the seizures that look less dramatic can be dangerous. There are serious risks to having an unchecked seizure disorder. Seizures can cause car crashes when they strike someone who’s driving. They can cause people to fall and hit their head or suffer a serious injury, too.

There are longer term dangers, too. People with epilepsy often have memory problems, or emotional disorders like anxiety or depression, which can be quite disabling. Epilepsy can be devastating in terms of quality of life. People with epilepsy cannot drive and they can have a hard time finding employment.

There is also the specter of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), in which a person with epilepsy unexpectedly dies, either with or without evidence of a seizure. The cause of SUDEP is unknown, but there are on average 1.16 cases of it every year for every 1,000 people with epilepsy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The risk of death is greater for people with uncontrolled seizures than people with controlled seizures.

Seizures can be caused by several different things. It could be a genetic tendency. It could be a symptom of a brain tumor or a side-effect of a brain injury or stroke. People with dementia can develop epilepsy, too.

If you have a seizure, you are much more likely to have a recurrence, so you should not ignore it or hope the issue goes away on its own. You need to find the cause of the seizure and treat it to prevent future seizures. And if doctors can’t find the cause, they can still prescribe anti-seizure medication to suppress or prevent seizures.

“Most people do well with medications,” Dr. Ergene said. “Sometimes we treat epilepsy with surgery, but those cases are rare. Most are treated successfully with medications.”