Symptoms of Epilepsy and Seizure Disorders

Seizure symptoms vary greatly among patients, from very mild to severe. Mild symptoms may not always be recognized as seizures by the person experiencing them or those observing the seizure. Seizures can last a few seconds or a few minutes. Symptoms include:

  • Staring
  • Periods of rapid eye blinking
  • Lip smacking
  • Nodding the head
  • Not responding to noise or words for brief periods
  • Appearing confused
  • Sleepiness and irritability upon waking
  • Falling suddenly for no apparent reason
  • Jerking movements of the arms and legs (convulsion)
  • Stiffening of the body
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Apnea (stopped breathing)


Many seizure types exist and, in fact, most seizures don't look anything like the kind of seizure that is commonly depicted in the news and in movies with loss of consciousness and shaking of extremities. Symptoms of seizures vary greatly and depend on the area(s) of the brain activated by the seizure activity.

If the seizure starts from a small area of the brain, a person may experience a warning or "aura" at the beginning of the seizure. This aura indicates which area of the brain is involved first by the abnormal electrical activity. Symptoms that may be associated with an aura include:

  • Numbness
  • Change in vision or hearing
  • Strange smell
  • Rising sensation in the stomach
  • Sudden fear
  • Strange feeling of familiarity

Some seizures manifest themselves as isolated involuntary movements of an arm or leg without any impairment in awareness of surroundings. Others may include only a temporary loss of the ability to speak, read, or understand what someone is saying.

Other seizures may include difficult to describe "funny feelings" or a sense of déjà vu. All of these events may occur in isolation without confusion or loss of awareness of surroundings (focal seizures) or they may start like this but progress to include confusion or loss awareness.

If the entire brain becomes involved in the abnormal brain activity, patients can often only report the aftermath of the seizure such as regaining awareness after falling, a brief unexplained time gap, loss of control of urine or stool control, or tongue bite or other bodily injury.

The importance of having a witness during seizures

As the epileptic activity spreads in the brain, patients often lose awareness of their surroundings and have to rely on witnesses to tell them what happened.

Witnesses may describe symptoms such as a blank stare, non-purposeful fumbling movements, head turns, limb stiffening and jerking, falls and whole body convulsions. Witnesses play an important role during diagnosis by reporting what symptoms the person exhibited while they themselves were unaware of what was occurring. These reports can help pinpoint the area of the brain where the seizure originated.

Related Resources


  • Video-EEG Monitoring: EEG portion of the test looks at electrical activity of the brain and the video recording shows how the body responds during a seizure.
  • Wada Testing: Learn more about this test, which examines each side of your brain.
  • Specialized Treatment for Epilepsy: The Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive Epilepsy Center maintains the highest designation by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers.


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