What Is the Difference Between a Seizure and a Convulsion?

Reviewed on 3/22/2021

Uncontrollable shaking is a feature of seizures, but not all seizures are accompanied by convulsions. Seizures can produce confusion without a physical reaction.
Uncontrollable shaking is a feature of seizures, but not all seizures are accompanied by convulsions. Seizures can produce confusion without a physical reaction.

Seizure and convulsion are two medical terms that are often confused with one another. Most people use these two terms interchangeably without knowing which is which. 

Not all seizures are characterized by convulsions. Convulsions involve uncontrollable shaking, but if you have a seizure you can simply feel confused without a physical reaction. You might easily appear to be staring at something that isn’t there. 

There are certain types of seizures that will cause someone to fall, shake, and lose consciousness. These are called convulsive seizures.

In other words, all convulsions are seizures but not all seizures are convulsions. 

What is a seizure?

Your brain is made of billions of neurons. These nerve cells process and share all of the information required for your body to function and your mind to think by discharging electrical currents. Usually, these interactions occur without any issues. 

A few neurons can fire out of sequence without seriously affecting you. When many neurons fire out of sequence at the same time, this produces a disorganized electrical discharge that can short-circuit your brain activity. This discharge spreads through a part of your brain, and a seizure is the result. Seizures can affect your motor skills, speech patterns, and even your basic bodily functions. This can result in convulsions, as well as other symptoms.

Symptoms of seizure

You may experience the following symptoms when you have a seizure:

  • Uncontrolled convulsions
  • Rapid eye movements or staring
  • Sudden falling
  • Stiffening of the body
  • Confusion
  • Uncontrolled convulsions
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Temporary stop in breathing
  • Entire body shaking
  • Mood changes

These symptoms typically stop after a short period of no longer than 15 minutes.  

There are usually early warning signs just prior to an attack. These may include:

Causes of seizure

Seizures are most common in children and young adults. They can occur at any age. If someone who is older has a seizure, it is quite often due to a family history and/or genetic disorder

Common causes of seizure include:

Sometimes the cause of a seizure will never be found.

Diagnosing seizures

Only a licensed healthcare professional can diagnose the type of seizure you have experienced and its root cause. 

Before providing you with medication, your doctor will need to identify the type of seizure that you are experiencing. These are classified into one of two categories:

  • Generalized seizures, which involve the whole brain
  • Focal seizures, which take place in a specific part of the brain

Your doctor will likely conduct a number of physical examinations, especially if you have experienced any dangerous convulsions as part of your symptoms. 

They will probably review your medical and family history. Your doctor may also send you for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scans in order to evaluate your brain activity. 

Treatment of seizures

The treatment of seizures usually involves trying to control, stop, or reduce the frequency of the occurrence of seizures. 

If you experience regular seizures, your doctor will probably prescribe you some type of medication to treat the underlying cause. There are a large number of types of medicine used to treat seizures and convulsions because there are so many different types of seizures. 

Your medication and treatment plan is then selected based on the type of seizure, your age, any potential side effects, and the ease of use. 

Most medicines that are used at home are oral capsules, syrup, and tablets. If you are hospitalized, your medication may be given by injection or intravenously. 

Urgent care

If you have a family member, friend, or relative who experiences a seizure that involves convulsions or other physical symptoms, here are the recommended steps to take: 

  • Be calm. Watching a seizure can be frightening, especially for people seeing convulsions for the first time. 
  • Remove the person from an environment that can harm them. Place a pillow or a cloth under the person’s head. 
  • Ensure that the person is not facing down to prevent suffocation.
  • Do not stop the person’s movement or hold them down. 
  • Let the person face one side if possible. 

You should seek emergency medical attention if the person:

  • Falls and hits their head during the seizure
  • Remains unconscious for more than 5 minutes
  • Has a heart condition
  • Has a repeated or ongoing seizure lasting for more than 5 minutes

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References
SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Epilepsy and Seizures."

Healthychildren.org: "Seizures and Epilepsy in Children."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Epilepsy and Seizures: Conditions We Treat."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Evaluation of a First-Time Seizure."

Mayo Clinic: "Seizures."

The Nurse Practitioner: "Guide to Care for Patients: Managing Seizures."

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