A neurological disorder that impacts approximately three million people, epilepsy often attacks with no warning. The disease is characterized by recurrent seizures that are unprovoked—here’s what it really feels like to have epilepsy. “In patients, a seizure occurs when there is an abnormal burst of electrical activity in the brain that interrupts normal electrical brain function,” explains Emily Klatte, MD, System Medical Chief, Epilepsy, OhioHealth Neuroscience Center at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus. “A first seizure may come out of the blue, as will subsequent seizures, which is what can make epilepsy an unpredictable disease, and very scary for patients and families.” In some cases, however, patients may have symptoms that are suggestive of seizures. Keep reading to learn about some possible early signs of a seizure that may be caused by epilepsy.
ESB Professional/ShutterstockWhile not all epilepsy or seizure sufferers experience an aura, experts agree it is usually a key symptom. “Though there’s no loss of awareness, an individual suffering from an aura may experience sensory or physical symptoms, emotions or thought changes,” Tacjana Friday, MD, of the Noran Neurological Clinic and Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, explains. Nausea is a common predictor that an aura is upon you, though this symptom can be connected to a myriad of other health conditions as well, including early pregnancy. Here are some natural remedies for morning sickness, if you think pregnancy may be to blame.
WAYHOME studio/ShutterstockThis symptom is often a key indicator that someone is experiencing an aura and may potentially fall into a seizure, though there are other reasons for muscle spasms—like these 10. “Some epilepsy patients experience seizures that begin with a small movement first (partial seizures), that then progresses to whole-body shaking,” explains Isha Gupta, MD, neurologist from IGEA Brain and Spine of New York and New Jersey. “Additionally, muscle twitching in one extremity or one side of the body can suddenly arise.” This, she points out, can potentially indicate a seizure that is from the part of the brain that controls motor movements
srisakorn wonglakorn/ShutterstockFor some epilepsy sufferers, this symptom could be pins and needles—which can be one of the pains you should never ignore—while, for others, it may feel more like electrical-type sensations, Jaishree Narayanan, MD, neurologist, NorthShore University HealthSystem, points out. “These can involve one side of the body, repeatedly one part of the body, though the sensations usually do not shift sites.” Fiona Gupta, MD, neurologist at North Jersey Brain & Spine Center, notes that these feelings can also resemble tingling, or even numbness. “These feelings can happen anywhere in the body as well, from head to toe,” she says.
Strange sense of smell
Asier Romero/ShutterstockAnother sign of an impending seizure is an overwhelming sense of smell. This, Dr. Fiona Gupta says, can be a noxious smell such as burning rubber or gasoline. “Typically, patients who experience this fragrant sensation will experience the same smell prior to most or all seizures they have.” In connection with a distorted sense of smell, seizure sufferers may experience strange tastes, like an unpleasant chemical or metallic sensations that tastes the same every time. Here is another condition for which sense of smell could be an early sign.
Impending feelings of doom
Marjan Apostolovic/ShutterstockPeople who are about to have a seizure often feel an impending fear that can range from mild to extreme. “This is often referred to as having ‘an Impending sense of doom,'” Dr. Fiona Gupta explains. This, she points out, may be a symptom of the aura itself, or may be a signal that a seizure is on the way. If you think your feelings of despair may be less physical and more mental, consider reading these warning signs of depression.
Altered heart or breathing rate
Radu Bercan/ShutterstockAlso part of the earliest symptoms of a seizure that may be connected to epilepsy, is heavy breathing that feels similar to signs of a panic attack. “Many patients experience feelings of anxiety prior to seizure, may have a weird feeling and not be able to think right,” Dr. Narayanan explains. “These panic attack-like symptoms may alter one’s sense of perception.” In other words, it may feel as though you’re looking at yourself from outside. “A sense of dissociation, of things getting smaller or looking distorted or of being in a dream-like state, can be common.”
Lack of bladder control
Mindscape studio/ShutterstockAccording to Dr. Isha Gupta, inability to maintain bladder control may be a predictor of epilepsy. “Often times patients wake up having urinated in their bed, which can potentially indicate that they had a seizure overnight,” she explains. If this person is sleeping alone, however, this symptom may not be detected. Read about how stress incontinence could also lead to lack of bladder control.
Image Point Fr/ShutterstockAnother indicator while sleeping could be biting your tongue. “If a patient wakes up and feels pain or possible bleeding from their tongue, this can also be a indication that you had a seizure overnight and bit your tongue,” says Dr. Isha Gupta. If you wake up and notice your tongue is sore and/or bleeding, she recommends mentioning this to your doctor as soon as possible so he or she can conduct further testing.
Twinsterphoto/ShutterstockAlthough there are many causes for double vision, such as fatigue and medication, Dr. Fiona Gupta explains that patients who have experienced seizures in the past will typically acknowledge these vision changes as a possible warning sign. Such vision changes could be blurriness, circles of light often associated with an aura or even formed hallucinations. Read about more shocking diseases that eye doctors find first.
How common are the seizures?
Charlies/ShutterstockAccording to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Report on Epilepsy Prevalence, approximately 10 percent of people will experience a seizure at some point during their lifetime, though only approximately one percent will develop epilepsy. “Only a doctor can definitively diagnose whether it’s a result of epilepsy or something else,” says Philip Stieg, chairman and neurosurgeon-in-chief at Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center at New York/Presbyterian. For this reason, all the experts we interviewed recommend seeking out medical care at the first sign of any of the symptoms. If epilepsy is not to blame, chances are it’s another health condition that can be treated.