Seizures, Epilepsy, and Spells: Introduction and Differentiation

by Roy Strowd, MD

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    00:01 In this lecture, we're going to talk about an introduction to seizures and epilepsy.

    00:07 This is a really important topic, relevant both clinically and for vignettes.

    00:11 And we'll talk about how we approach seizures, what they are, how we approach epilepsy and what that is.

    00:18 Let's start with, what is a seizure? It's a sudden uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain that results in a change in behavior, movement, sensation, consciousness, or some other neurologic function.

    00:33 When we think about seizures, seizures are different person to person.

    00:39 Seizures differ in their appearance and do not resemble each other.

    00:43 So one person seizure may look very different from another person's seizure.

    00:47 Classically, we think about the seizures where someone passes out, jerks and shakes all over, and maybe incontinent or bite their tongue.

    00:56 But sometimes seizures are much more subtle, and may show up as a brief period where someone stares off and isn't able to converse or attend.

    01:06 So seizures between each person may look different.

    01:09 But within the same person, the seizure should always look the same.

    01:14 Typically, each seizure has the same appearance, and that we call the seizure semiology.

    01:20 And a seizure should be stereotypic, the semiology what happens should be the same every single time for that patient's seizure.

    01:30 Importantly, seizures are stereotyped, meaning that each event follows that same pattern.

    01:36 And when we're evaluating patients on a history, when we're interrogating whether we think this is a seizure or not, determining that it is stereotyped is critical to making a diagnosis of seizure.

    01:49 What happens in a seizure? What's the seizure trajectory? What a patient's describe and as clinicians, what are we looking to determine when we take a history? When we think about the seizure phase over time, seizures have multiple phases.

    02:04 There's the aura, that initial phase, that warning or trigger sign that a patient recognizes that may mean that a seizure is going to happen.

    02:13 Or as can have many different appearances, many different behaviors, many different descriptions, but typically, the aura is always the same, it's the onset of the seizure.

    02:24 Then there's the ictal onset, that's when the seizure is driving that area of brain and patients will have manifestations of the actual seizure semiology.

    02:35 This is followed by the ictal phase that ictal phase, we classically think about is a period of jerking of tonic or tonic clonic activity, but the ictal phase can take on the appearance of any part of behavior or brain.

    02:50 And then this is followed by the postictal phase, where there's depression of brain activity in the area that was seizing.

    02:57 And in the classic case, patients are very confused and sleepy for somewhere between 15 min to up to 2 hours in some situations.

    03:06 And so all seizures will follow this sequence of aura, ictal onset, ictal phase and postictal.

    03:12 We may not be able to recognize each of those clinically for all seizures, but we're looking to evaluate those in the patients that we meet and evaluate.

    03:23 What happens on the brain? What's going on in the electro encephalography, the brain, what's going on with the brain waves during a seizure? What we look at the grand mal pattern of seizure, this is what we see.

    03:36 Over on the left, we see that the normal brain has very low amplitude, sporadic and erratic activity.

    03:42 There's really no pattern with normal brainwave activity.

    03:46 When the seizure begins, we see a spike.

    03:48 And that spike indicates that there is the onset of the seizure.

    03:52 And for a grand mal seizure, we begin to see the tonic phase, where each of those spikes corresponds to a jerk in patient movement.

    04:02 This then gives way to the tonic clonic phase, the clonic phase.

    04:07 And there on the EEG, we see spike and wave, spike and wave, corresponding to the jerking and rest and jerking and rest that we see when a patient is in the clonic phase of their seizure.

    04:19 And then this is followed by post ictal depression and we tend to see that the brainwaves become very low amplitude almost silent, almost quiet in this postictal phase when the brain is very depressed after a seizure.

    04:32 And so the EEG, what's happening on the brain really maps closely to what we see and hear from patients in the semiology of a seizure.

    04:44 So if that's a seizure, well then what is epilepsy? Seizure and epilepsy are different.

    04:49 The seizure we said was a sudden event with variable clinical features.

    04:53 Epilepsy has a number of different descriptions over time.

    04:57 It's a neurologic disorder that results in repeated unprovoked seizures, and that's probably a historical definition.

    05:04 If we look back in antiquity, epilepsy was described as the falling sickness.

    05:10 And so even very early in our history, there was a recognition that seizures could and epilepsy could take hold of patients.

    05:19 The classic description, the classic definition of epilepsy is 2 or more recurrent stereotypic unprovoked seizures.

    05:27 So there's many important things in that definition.

    05:29 Seizures must be stereotyped.

    05:32 Classically, they are unprovoked, there's no cause, and patients must have 2 or more.

    05:37 Anybody can have 1 seizure, but 2 becomes a diagnosis of epilepsy.

    05:42 For me, I tend to use a definition similar to this a condition characterized by a predisposition to recurrent stereotypic seizures of a central nervous system origin.

    05:54 And I like this because we see epilepsy, multiple recurrent unprovoked seizures, or multiple recurrent seizures from patients who have tumours or strokes, or other condition that allows us to consider all of those in our diagnosis of epilepsy.

    06:09 The key thing when we're differentiating between seizures and epilepsy, a seizure is a one time event, epilepsy or recurrent stereotypic seizures that come from the brain.

    06:20 But before we get to a diagnosis of seizure, we really start with the patient's clinical description of the event of the spell.

    06:28 A spell is not something that the witch doctor conjured up.

    06:31 In medicine, we use the term spell to describe a paroxysmal event of altered brain function.

    06:38 And spells may come from epileptic phenomenon, they may be a seizure, or may be non-epileptic.

    06:44 And our first job as a clinician or when evaluating a clinical vignette is to figure out whether this spell is epileptic in origin is a seizure or is non-epileptic.

    06:54 So what's the differential diagnosis for a spell? Maybe an epileptic seizure or maybe a non-epileptic event.

    07:01 Non-epileptic events may be non-epileptic behavioral events of functional diagnosis or may come from a seizure mimic that's not of an epileptic origin.

    07:13 And the list of those potential seizure mimics is quite long.

    07:16 Syncope, and specifically convulsive syncope can masquerade as a seizure.

    07:22 Typically, we know that seizures start with altered awareness, alter behavior and even convulsion followed by loss of consciousness, whereas convulsive syncope begins with the fainting followed by the convulsion and typically there is a period where the patient has fainted and is not yet convulsing.

    07:40 In addition, the postictal phase can differentiate convulsive syncope from an epileptic seizure.

    07:46 We know that in the postictal phase of a seizure, patients are very confused and altered for that 15 min to 2 hours, whereas with convulsive syncope, there is not postictal confusion.

    07:57 Patients come right back to.

    07:59 Migraines can sometimes present and mimic a seizure particularly the aura around migraine can sometimes be very similar to the aura of a seizure.

    08:08 Transient ischemic attacks.

    08:09 Recurrent episodes of cerebral ischemia can mimic seizure.

    08:13 Breath holding spells and children panic attacks.

    08:17 There are movement disorders that can occur during daytime or nighttime that can mimic seizure paroxysmal dyskinesia episodes where patients have abnormal and excess movements, a tic disorder or hemifacial spasm which is jerking of the face can also mimic a focal seizure.

    08:34 Paroxysmal sleep disorders, narcolepsy, REM behavior disorder and parasomnias can mimic nocturnal seizures.

    About the Lecture

    The lecture Seizures, Epilepsy, and Spells: Introduction and Differentiation by Roy Strowd, MD is from the course Seizures and Epilepsy.

    Included Quiz Questions

    1. Seizures are characterized by sudden electrical disturbances within the brain.
    2. Seizures have a nearly identical clinical presentation for all patients.
    3. Seizures do not alter a patient’s sensory perception.
    4. A patient who experiences recurrent seizures is likely to have different symptoms with each episode.
    5. Each seizure is unique, preventing them from being grouped into general types.
    1. The postictal phase can last up to 2 hours.
    2. The initial “aura” is usually unique to each episode, preventing a patient from predicting an impending seizure.
    3. Patients are completely asymptomatic during the postictal phase.
    4. The ictal phase is the build-up period before tonic contractions and jolting begin.
    5. The aura is normally detected 8–12 hours prior to the seizure.
    1. Complex migraines can present with an aura similar to that in a seizure.
    2. A seizure usually results in a state of unconsciousness prior to the convulsive episode.
    3. Transient ischemic attacks do not present with symptoms similar to those of a seizure.
    4. This patient’s history suggests a diagnosis of REM sleep behavior disorder.
    5. As the patient's seizure can be classified as provoked, she should be diagnosed with epilepsy.

    Author of lecture Seizures, Epilepsy, and Spells: Introduction and Differentiation

     Roy Strowd, MD

    Roy Strowd, MD

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