How to Diagnose Epilepsy

Three Parts:Understanding the DiseaseGoing to the DoctorKnowing What Tests to Expect

Epilepsy is a disease that affects millions of people. In fact, as of 2015, a little over 2 million Americans are living with the disease.[1] If you think you may have this disease, the steps in this article will help you learn how to diagnose it.

Part 1
Understanding the Disease

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    Know what epilepsy is. Epilepsy is a neurological disease that causes seizures.[2] It mainly works on the nervous system.[3]
    • It more often begins in childhood, though it can come on in adulthood. Sometimes, it appears to be genetic, while other times, it is brought on by head trauma.[4]
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    Know what happens. In epilepsy, the brain's neurons don't send out proper signals.[5]
    • With epileptic seizures, the brain's neurons misfire. Neurons work through electrical signals. Because these signals aren't traveling in their normal patterns, it causes electrical chaos in the brain, which leads to seizures.[6]
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    Look for the symptoms. Seizures are one symptom, but other behaviors can be symptoms. For instance, epilepsy can cause you to behave oddly. It can give you unprovoked emotions or cause you to feel strange things throughout your body.[7]
    • Just because you have seizures doesn't mean you have epilepsy. Non-epileptic seizures are not caused by electrical misfires in the brain, but they do look the same on the outside. These seizures are sometimes caused by stress. Provoked seizures can be caused by abusing substances like alcohol or drugs, but they can also be brought on by other body problems, such as low blood sugar, excessive trauma, or a very high fever.[8]
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    Know the signs of a seizure. Seizures can range from generalized or grand mal seizures to partial or focal seizures and absence or petite mal seizures.[9]
    • Generalized or grand mal seizures can cause your whole body to go stiff. The stiffness will often release into repeated movements. You may make strange noises or even stop breathing for a period of time. Sometimes, you may go to the bathroom while having a seizure. When coming out of a seizure, you may find yourself very confused and stay confused for part of a day. This type of seizure affects the whole brain.[10]
    • Partial or focal seizures only affect a part of the body, as they only affect a part of the brain. However, they can also lead to confusion, though not always. They can cause similar repeated movements, but it will only be in one or two parts of the body. They can also cause strange feelings, such as suddenly feeling full.[11]
    • Absence or petite small seizures are much smaller events. They generally lead to a person staring off into space or excessively blinking.[12]
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    Understand the categories of epilepsy. Four main categories of epilepsy exist, idiopathic generalized epilepsy, idiopathic partial epilepsy, symptomatic generalized epilepsy, and symptomatic partial epilepsy.[13]
    • Idiopathic generalized epilepsy is often genetic and usually the symptoms begin in childhood or young adulthood. This type of epilepsy often isn't paired with a brain abnormality, but it can cause a variety of seizures.[14]
    • Idiopathic partial epilepsy can also be genetic, and it begins even earlier than idiopathic generalized epilepsy. This type of epilepsy is not as severe as other types, only causing minor seizures during sleep, and kids usually outgrow it.[15]
    • Symptomatic generalized epilepsy is paired with trauma in the brain, usually caused at birth. In fact, "symptomatic" means that the epilepsy has a known cause; sometimes types of epilepsy in this category are called "cryptogenic" instead, meaning the epilepsy likely has a specific cause but the doctor hasn't figured out what yet. It often accompanies other neurological problems, such as cerebral palsy, and it can lead to a variety of seizure types.[16]
    • Symptomatic partial epilepsy is the most common type to begin in adulthood, though it can also come on earlier. This type is also caused by some kind of trauma to the brain, leading to abnormalities, such as infections, strokes, or tumors. This type can be treated through brain surgery, which removes the part of the brain causing the problem.[17]
    • The main named types of epilepsy fall into one of these categories. For instance, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome falls under symptomatic generalized epilepsy.[18]

Part 2
Going to the Doctor

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    Know if you're at risk. You can be at risk if you've had a brain injury, brain tumor, or a genetic condition that affects the brain. You can also be at risk if you've had a stroke or infections. Nonetheless, most cases of epilepsy do not have a known cause.[19]
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    Go to the doctor if you have any type of seizure. Your doctor is the best source for diagnosing what type of seizures you are having.
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    Report other possible causes. If you're having seizures, your doctor needs to know if something else could be causing them besides epilepsy, such as drug or alcohol abuse. Remember that stress and lack of sleep can cause seizures, as can missing doses of certain medications.[20]
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    Be prepared. Ask the doctor if any of the tests he or she plans to run on you require you to take special steps for pre-care, such as fasting.
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    Expect a neurological examination. Before taking any tests, your doctor will likely examine you to determine if any of your movements, behaviors, or mental abilities are not quite right.[21]

Part 3
Knowing What Tests to Expect

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    Get an Electroencephalogram (EEG). An EEG helps the doctor see how the electrical signals move in your brain.[22]
    • During this test, the doctor will place sensors on your scalp. The sensors record your brain activity. Mostly, you will stay relaxed, but you may be asked to do a few things, like breathe deeply.[23] Essentially, your doctor wants to see if your brain is misfiring and causing your seizures.
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    Have blood tests. Blood tests can help rule out anything else that may be causing seizures, such as infections.[24]
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    Get a positron emission tomography (a PET scan). PET scans can pinpoint the part of the brain that is misfiring and causing the seizures.[25]
    • For a PET scan, your doctor will begin with an injection of radioactive material. The positrons in the injection react with electrons in the body. This test can also help decide if you have another health issue instead of epilepsy.[26]
    • Your doctor may also want a computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Both of these also help your doctor identify abnormalities in the brain. A single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) scan may be used if an EEG or MRI doesn't show anything in your brain. Like a PET scan, you'd have a small amount of radiation injected into your body, and the SPECT scan would track how blood is moving to and from your brain.[27]
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    Request a spinal tap. A spinal tap can help the doctor to determine if you have epilepsy through spinal fluid analysis.[28]
    • During a spinal tap, the doctor will remove fluid from your spine. You will be expected to get in a certain position, such as the fetal position. You will also be given a local anesthetic to help with any pain. The lab will analyze the fluid to find out more information.[29]


  • Don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion, especially if your doctor is recommending an extreme treatment such as brain surgery.

Sources and Citations

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Categories: Neurological Disorders