Module 1


What Is Epilepsy?

Learning about epilepsy and how it affects you can help you manage your epilepsy.1

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that involves seizures.2 Seizures are strong bursts of electrical activity in the brain.3,4

A seizure is an event, and epilepsy is the disease.5 Just because a person has seizures does not mean that a person has epilepsy.1


Epilepsy is a chronic medical condition, meaning that it may last for the rest of your life.1

Epilepsy is not contagious, and it is not a mental disorder.1


What Are Seizures?

Seizures are strong bursts of electrical activity in the neurons (nerve cells) of the brain.3,4



This video shows what's happening in the brain when someone has a seizure.


What Causes Seizures?


What Happens During a Seizure?

Each functional region (color-coded) of the brain has a different job. What happens to you during a seizure depends on where the seizure happens in the brain.7


Are There Different Types of Seizures?

There are 2 main types of seizures: focal seizures and generalized seizures.14

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Generalized seizures have many subtypes.14

Absence Seizure

A seizure that causes a sudden loss of consciousness (awareness), usually for about 10 to 20 seconds. The person may just stare into space.15


Atonic Seizure

A seizure that causes a sudden loss of muscle tone, usually for less than 15 seconds. The person may drop things or fall. Atonic seizures are also called drop attacks or drop seizures.16


Clonic Seizure

A seizure that causes muscles to go back and forth between contracting and relaxing, usually for a few seconds to 1 minute. The person may make jerky movements with their arms or legs.17


Myoclonic Seizure

A seizure that causes brief, shock-like jerks that last 1 or 2 seconds. The person usually has muscle jerks on both sides of the body at the same time.18


Tonic Seizure

A seizure that causes muscles on both sides of the body to contract strongly and become intensely stiff, usually for less than 20 seconds. The person may fall if standing when the seizure starts.19


Tonic-clonic Seizure

A seizure that has 2 parts. First, during the tonic part, the muscles of the body contract strongly and may cause the person to fall. Then, during the clonic part, arms and legs jerk in a repeated pattern. A tonic-clonic seizure may last from 1 to 3 minutes.20

Tonic part


Clonic part


Who Has Epilepsy?

Epilepsy affects children, men, and women of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and ages.1 Here are a few facts about who has epilepsy.

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How Is Epilepsy Diagnosed?

It can be hard for a doctor to diagnose someone with epilepsy. The doctor might not ever see you having a seizure.24

The information you give to your doctor about your seizures is very important. This information will help the doctor decide if you have epilepsy or not. Family members, friends, or anyone else who has seen you have a seizure might have helpful information, too.24

Your doctor will talk to you about your seizures and examine you. The doctor might run some tests to try to find out the cause of the seizures.25

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What Other Medical Conditions May Coexist With Your Epilepsy?

You may have medical conditions affecting your brain that are caused by the seizures or related to your epilepsy.1

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Does Epilepsy Affect People Differently?

Epilepsy affects people in different ways at different times of their lives.1

  • Children, teenagers, adults, and older adults may all face different problems in managing their epilepsy1
  • Times of change, such as moving from youth to adulthood, starting a new medication, or having a change in how often seizures happen, might be hard to manage1
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Is Managing Your Epilepsy a Team Approach?

For most people, epilepsy is a chronic medical condition.1 One part of epilepsy management is control of seizures. Another part is managing how epilepsy affects other parts of your life.1

Management of your epilepsy will probably require a team approach.

  • You are the most important member of your healthcare team
  • Your family members and other caregivers are also important members of your epilepsy team
  • There are many healthcare professionals who may be members of your healthcare team


  1. England MJ, Liverman CT, Schultz AM, Strawbridge LM, eds. Epilepsy Across the Spectrum. Promoting Health and Understanding. Washington, DC: Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The National Academies Press; 2012.
  2. Fisher RS, Acevedo C, Arzimanoglou A, et al. ILAE official report: a practical clinical definition of epilepsy. Epilepsia. 2014;55(4):475-482.
  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The Epilepsies and Seizures: Hope Through Research. February 2016.
  4. Fisher RS, van Emde Boas W, Blume W, et al. Epileptic seizures and epilepsy: definitions proposed by the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) and the International Bureau for Epilepsy (IBE). Epilepsia. 2005;46(4):470-472.
  5. Epilepsy Foundation. What Is a Seizure? March 2014.
  6. World Health Organization. Epilepsy Fact Sheet. February 2016.
  7. Epilepsy Foundation. What Happens During a Seizure? September 2014.
  8. Mayo Clinic. Brain Lobes. Published 2016.
  9. International League Against Epilepsy. Parietal Overview. Published 2016.
  10. Mayo Clinic. Frontal Lobe Seizures. Published 2016.
  11. Epilepsy Foundation. Frontal Lobe Epilepsy. September 2013.
  12. International League Against Epilepsy. Occipital Overview. Published 2016.
  13. Epilepsy Foundation. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. September 2013.
  14. Fisher RS, Cross JH, French JA, et al. Operational classification of seizure types by the International League Against Epilepsy. International League Against Epilepsy: 2017.
  15. Epilepsy Foundation. Absence Seizures. March 2014.
  16. Epilepsy Foundation. Atonic Seizures. March 2014.
  17. Epilepsy Foundation. Clonic Seizures. March 2014.
  18. Epilepsy Foundation. Myoclonic Seizures. March 2014.
  19. Epilepsy Foundation. Tonic Seizures. March 2014.
  20. Epilepsy Foundation. Tonic-clonic Seizures. March 2014.
  21. Epilepsy Foundation. New to Epilepsy and Seizures? An Introduction to Epilepsy. September 2016.
  22. Hirtz D, Thurman DJ, Gwinn-Hardy K, Mohamed M, Chaudhuri AR, Zalutsky R. How common are the "common" neurologic disorders? Neurology. 2007;68(5):326-337.
  23. US Census Bureau. US and World Population Clock.
  24. Epilepsy Foundation. Diagnosing Epilepsy. October 2014.
  25. Epilepsy Foundation. Diagnosis 101. October 2014.

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