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What are seizures?

A seizure is abnormal electrical activity in your brain. There are different types of seizures. Some may make your arms and legs shake uncontrollably and others may cause you to simply stare into space and not respond to other people. Most seizures last for only a short time, from a few seconds to several minutes.


The most common cause of seizures is epilepsy. Other causes of seizures include head injury, alcohol or drugs, high fever, a brain tumor, or infection. Many seizures have no known cause.


How will my health care provider know I have seizures?

Your health care provider will ask you some questions about your health and give you a checkup. She also may send you for special tests, such as an electroencephalogram (EEG). This painless test records the brain's electrical activity and can help her learn what kind of seizures you have. Special sticky patches (electrodes) are put on your head to detect brain waves, which are recorded by the EEG machine. The electrodes don't deliver any electricity to your head.


Other tests that may be used include video EEG monitoring (which involves videotaping you during an EEG, usually over several hours in the hospital) and special tests of your head, such as a computed tomography scan (also called a CT or "CAT" scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).


How will my seizures be treated?

Medicine can control most seizures. The right medicine at the right dose prevents seizures in most people and lets them lead normal lives. Your health care provider will prescribe medicine based on your age and health history, how often you have seizures, and how severe they are. The medicines might make you feel tired or dizzy and cause vision problems at first. (Tell your health care provider if these problems don't go away.)


Your health care provider will monitor your response to the medicine and make changes if needed. If you're taking antiseizure medicine, don't stop taking it without your health care provider's guidance or you may have more seizures.


If medicines don't control your seizures, your health care provider may recommend surgery or insertion of a small device called a vagal nerve stimulator. The vagal nerve stimulator is implanted under the skin near your collarbone and has a wire that connects to the vagus nerve in your neck. Your health care provider will program the device to send weak electrical signals to your brain at regular intervals, preventing seizures. You'll be given a small magnet that you can use to turn on the device if you feel a seizure starting.


What can I do to protect myself?

To prevent seizures, take your antiseizure medicine as directed and never stop taking it abruptly. Get enough sleep, avoid alcohol, and learn relaxation techniques. Don't play computer or electronic games for long periods because the flickering lights could trigger a seizure. Avoid swimming or cooking alone, climbing to high places, or bathing in a bathtub; a seizure during these activities would be very dangerous.


You may have an aura or another type of warning that you're going to have a seizure. If so, immediately lie down in a safe place. Call your health care provider after the seizure ends.


If you're with someone who has a seizure, don't try to force anything into his mouth or try to open his jaw if it's clenched. Move hard or sharp objects out of his way. Turn him onto his side and put something soft (such as a folded sweatshirt) under his head. Loosen any clothing around his neck (such as a necktie) to help him breathe. Don't try to hold him down; this could cause an injury, even broken bones, especially in older adults.


If you can, take note of how long the seizure lasts and what parts of the body are affected so you can describe the seizure to his health care provider later. If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, or starts again shortly after ending, call 911. Seizures that don't stop (called status epilepticus) are very dangerous and need emergency care. After the seizure ends, reassure the person that he's all right and call his health care provider.