I’ve Had a Spell. What Is It? What Do I Do Next?
When I was a child growing up, my then three-year-old sister would pass out and fall over in the middle of the grocery store aisle. My mother was terrified. Was she having seizures? Did she have a brain tumor? Recently a long-time friend experienced a series of convulsive seizures that resulted in his daughter calling 911. What were these seizures? Wasn’t he too old to get epilepsy?
Neither one of these cases turned out to be epilepsy. In the case of my sister, these events were benign and not seizures. In the case of my friend, the seizures were the result of a life-threatening condition. It is estimated that one in 20 people will have a single seizure at some point in their life. One in 26 people will develop epilepsy and globally, 87 people are diagnosed with it every day. If you, or someone you know or love, is one of those people, getting appropriate testing and diagnosis are the first steps in the journey.
Seizures are sometimes called spells, fits or attacks and they affect different people in different ways. In fact, there are over 40 unique seizure types and what they look like and what causes them can vary considerably. Some people may simply go blank, or stare into space for a couple of seconds, others may wander around and be confused. In the extreme, some people may fall to the ground and shake, (which is called a convulsion), and often do not remember the episode when it is over. Below is a list of the most common symptoms of a seizure. For more information on these symptoms, you can visit www.medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003200.html.
Common Symptoms of a Seizure
- Brief blackouts
- Changes in behavior, such as picking at one’s clothing
- Drooling or foaming at the mouth
- Eye movements
- Grunting and snorting
- Mood changes such as sudden anger, unexplainable fear, panic, joy or laughter
- Shaking of the entire body
- Staring spells
- Sudden falling
- Tasting a bitter or metallic flavor
- Teeth clenching
- Temporary stop in breathing
- Uncontrollable muscle spasms with twitching or jerking limbs
- Altered senses
The symptoms above can be caused by epilepsy, but some can also be symptoms of other diseases and disorders. Because the symptoms can be overlapping, it is important to see your physician and get an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor may start the diagnostic process by conducting a history and physical and even some other routine tests.
From there, your doctor may send you to see a specialist. This may be a neurologist or a cardiologist depending on your exact seizure symptoms. The testing may include a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an electrocardiogram (EKG) or an electroencephalogram (EEG). The typical EEG is called a routine EEG and is usually done in the physician’s office and records your brain’s electrical activity for as long as 60 minutes. Because most people do not experience their seizures on a daily or regular schedule, the routine EEG may not show any abnormalities. In that case, a long-term EEG may be ordered.
This long-term EEG can last for 24 hours or several days, depending on the frequency of your spells or seizures. This test typically includes video along with the EEG. The time-matched video and EEG help your doctor to determine if your seizures or symptoms are related to any abnormal electrical activity in your brain. Sometimes it is necessary to have this long-term EEG performed in the hospital, but it also can be done in the privacy and comfort of your own home.
For more information on how seizures are diagnosed visit www.epilepsy.com
Is Testing Really Necessary?
Only your doctor can decide if testing is right for you and what type of testing you may need. If your doctor does recommend testing, it is important that you take the time to have the test or tests done.
Non-epileptic seizures can be caused by mental stress or a physical condition, including
- A heart-condition that causes fainting
- Diabetes or other metabolic disorders
- Mental pain
- Emotional pain
- A major accident
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Being bullied
The video above depicts what some seizure symptoms might look like and how testing may help a physician to make an accurate diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatment.
Many people go for years without the right diagnosis or treatment. One study in adults found that between 23 – 26 percent of people were misdiagnosed with epilepsy.1 (Scheepers B, et al. The misdiagnosis of epilepsy: findings of a population study. Seizure 19987403-406.) Another study in children found that 30% of those diagnosed with epilepsy did not actually have it.
If you are not properly diagnosed, it could result in you not receiving the right medication or treatment. It could even mean taking a medication that actually makes your condition worse. Imagine if you really have a heart condition but you are treated with medication for epilepsy.
So, take the time to find the right doctor and get the right testing if you are experiencing any of the signs that you might be having seizures.