What is a Focal Seizure?


Focal seizures are known also as partial, simple, and complex seizures, yet they all mean the same thing--abnormal electrical activity in one specific area of the brain. If they are simple-partial seizures, they will not affect memory or consciousness. If they are complex-partial, they will not only affect your memory and consciousness but also your behavior. Although they generally begin and remain in one area of the brain, it is possible for them to affect the entire brain, progressing to a generalized seizure, the most severe type of seizure.


A focal seizure can occur at any age and may present as a single episode or as chronic seizures, also known as epilepsy. It is more common in adults than in children. The abnormality may have been present at birth, or it can develop as a result of head trauma from a fall or accident, an infection such as meningitis, or health conditions that include brain tumors and strokes. For many patients though, there is no identifiable cause for their condition.


Someone with focal seizures may suffer from any or all of the following symptoms. It should be noted, however, that many with epilepsy generally suffer from similar symptoms with every episode they experience. Symptoms include abnormal movement of her head, forced turning of her head, a contraction and relaxation of muscles, lip smacking or abnormal mouth behaviors, a numbness or tingling sensation that remains in a localized area of the body or spreads to various areas, hallucinations such as hearing, seeing, or smelling things that do not exist, abdominal symptoms such as pain, nausea, or vomiting, dilated pupils, increased heart rate or pulse, blacking out, and changes in mood, emotions or vision.


Before performing any diagnostic tests, the patient's neurologist or the emergency room doctor will ask a series of questions about his medical history. This may include previous episodes not reported, family history, and any conditions that may be considered a risk factor such as prior brain surgeries. The doctor may then order an EEG, a test performed to monitor the electrical activity of the brain. Some may order a sleep-deprived EEG because lack of sleep is a typical trigger for many patients with epilepsy. During an EEG, other triggers may be introduced such as quick flashing lights--these are another common trigger among those diagnosed with seizures. This test will show the changes from normal electrical brain activity to abnormal. A CT scan or MRI may also be ordered to show the exact location of the lesion causing the symptoms.


Treatment for focal seizures has many variables, the first being whether or not it is an isolated episode. If the patient presents with no prior history of seizures and has no risk factors, yet has been exposed to a common trigger of seizures such as a toxic reaction to chemicals or a high fever, the only treatment required may be to avoid these triggers. However, if the patient is having chronic or recurring seizures and has been diagnosed with epilepsy, she will be placed on antiseizure medications. The response to these medications will vary from person to person--what works well for one may not work for another. Therefore, it may take several adjustments in dosages and medications before the seizures are managed. In some cases, multiple medications are required.

Reducing Risks

Though there is no cure for epilepsy, there are steps you can take to help decrease your chances of having a seizure. The most obvious is to take your medication as prescribed. If you are experiencing serious or severe side effects, call your doctor immediately to have your medication adjusted or changed to one that works for you. Sometimes the side effects are not worth the benefits of the drug. Every person with epilepsy has her own trigger, the one thing or number of things, that sparks their seizures. For some it's stress, for others flashing lights, and yet for others lack of sleep. When you first begin having seizures, write down what happened right before the seizure occurred. Doing this every time you have a seizure will help you determine what sparks your seizures and help you avoid those triggers.


Though an epilepsy diagnosis is not something you want to shout from the rooftops, it is a good idea to tell your close friends and family members so they are prepared in case you have a seizure in their presence. Also, unless you are seizure-free for at least six months, do not drive a vehicle. Seizures can be unpredictable and you cannot only be risking your life, but the lives of those on the road around you. Finally, remember that being diagnosed with epilepsy is not a death sentence. It may take a while to get used to as your meds are prescribed and adjusted. Even then you may have periodic episodes that can be disheartening. But the bottom line is this--you can still live a happy, healthy life with this condition and prove to those around you that epilepsy is not something to fear.


There are certain moments when emergency medical attention should be sought, even for those who have been diagnosed with focal seizures for some time. If his seizure lasts longer than usual or has repeated seizures within a five-minute time frame, call 911 immediately. Also, if he has repeated seizures and does not regain consciousness in between, or his seizure ends and ten minutes later is still disoriented when asked simple questions such as what year it is or his address is, call an ambulance.

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