While epilepsy is a common cause of seizures, it’s not the only one.
A moment of unresponsiveness; the inability to recall what just happened; convulsions or jerking movements; sudden stiffness of the body: These are classic symptoms of an epilepsy seizure. An epilepsy seizure is triggered by abnormal electrical impulses in the brain.
And while these symptoms may indicate epilepsy, other brain abnormalities or injuries could also lead to seizures.
What is a Non-Epileptic Event?
A non-epileptic seizure, or non-epileptic event, is a seizure that isn’t caused by epilepsy but looks the same. These may be caused by a change or difference in electrical activity in the brain, but not an electrical disruption of the type that triggers an epileptic seizure.
There are two types of non-epileptic seizures, called psychogenic and physiologic. A psychogenic non-epileptic seizure can be brought on by some sort of emotional stressor or trauma. It’s a legitimate seizure and should be treated that way, but it is not caused by a problem in the brain.
A physiologic non-epileptic seizure can be triggered by some sort of change in the brain — typically a change in the supply of blood or oxygen rather than electrical activity. Some possible causes of physiologic non-epileptic seizures include:
- Rapid drop in blood pressure
- Low blood sugar levels
- Irregular heartbeat
Causes of Seizures
All types of seizures, including those not associated with epilepsy, can have a number of causes, including:
- A brain injury
- A brain tumor
- Changes in metabolism (e.g., low blood sugar) from health conditions like kidney and liver problems
- An infection throughout or in a particular part of the body (including infection in the brain)
- Drug use or withdrawal
- Alcohol use or withdrawal
- A congenital health problem, like Down’s syndrome
- Alzheimer’s disease
These seizures are caused by high fevers, and occur most commonly in infants and young children. Febrile seizures are quite common, affecting 1 in 25 children. While frightening, these seizures don’t cause brain damage or otherwise harm children.
During the seizure, the child may be unconscious, shake, and convulse. Febrile seizures can last longer than 15 minutes or less than a few seconds, but most commonly last one to two minutes.
Febrile seizures typically strike when a child is between 6 months and 5 years old, but they most often occur during the toddler years. These types of seizures may recur during childhood but are usually outgrown.
A first seizure is just what it sounds like — the first seizure a person has. The underlying cause may be determined to be epilepsy, but often the cause can’t be determined.
These isolated seizures are not rare events — up to 5 percent of people in the United States may experience a first seizure that isn’t due to fever or epilepsy. A first seizure typically occurs before age 25, with most taking place in those younger than 15. First seizures seem to strike males a little more often than females, and they may not have a specific or detectable cause. A first seizure can affect part of or the entire brain.
These seizures occur in pregnant women and are not caused by epilepsy or other brain disorders. The cause of eclampsia is not known, but it often follows the pregnancy condition called preeclampsia, in which the woman’s blood pressure gets abnormally high. Eclampsia occurs in about 1 out of every 2,000 to 3,000 expectant women. The seizures cause convulsions or changes in personality such as agitation.
All seizures — whether epileptic or non-epileptic — should be evaluated and treated. Determining what’s causing the symptoms, and if there’s an underlying condition, is vital to staying safe and helping to prevent all types of seizures.