Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with epilepsy? If so, you may want to better understand seizures. You may wonder what they feel like and if they’re painful.
How a seizure feels and the symptoms it causes differ from person to person. However, each type of seizure has common symptoms.
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Seizures are characterized by two broad types:¹
A generalized seizure involves the left and right sides of the brain. Most people who experience generalized seizures lose consciousness and awareness throughout.
A focal seizure is also known as a partial seizure, as it only involves one part of the brain. Most people who experience focal seizures stay conscious and are aware of various sensations.
Note: some seizure types can be seen in either group.
This type of seizure includes:
Generalized tonic-clonic seizures are the most common type for people with epilepsy.
Common symptoms include:
Crying out or groaning
Sudden loss of consciousness
Stiffening muscles (the tonic part)
Biting the tongue or the inside of the cheek
Extreme jerking (rapidly alternating contraction and relaxation) of the limbs, trunk, and head (the clonic part)
Loss of bladder or bowel control
After this type of seizure, the person may experience:
In a tonic seizure, muscle tone increases and the body suddenly becomes stiff. The tone is the muscle’s resting tension.
Tonic seizures usually affect children and occur during sleep. They are shorter than other types of generalized onset seizures — usually under 20 seconds.²
Clonic seizures are rare, but they are a common type of seizure in babies.³
They are characterized by repeated, rhythmic jerking that occurs over a period of time. The muscles rapidly stiffen and relax.
A person may fall if they are standing when a clonic seizure starts.
Absence seizures are generally seen in children aged four to 12.⁴ They usually last approximately four to 30 seconds and are accompanied by several symptoms, including:
An unresponsive, blank stare
Lip smacking, chewing, or swallowing
Absence seizures frequently occur, sometimes more than 30 times per day.
Myoclonic seizures are characterized by extremely brief episodes of muscle jerking or twitching. They usually last one to two seconds, but many can occur around the same time.⁵
Despite being a generalized onset seizure, myoclonic seizures do not cause loss of consciousness.
The exact symptoms depend on what condition causes the seizure.
Seizures in this category can be very subtle, such as a finger twitch. This means they’re often mistaken for tics or tremors.
Where tonic seizures involve increased muscle tone and stiffness, atonic seizures are characterized by limpness. They are also called drop seizures or drop attacks.
Symptoms of an atonic seizure include:
Parts of the body becoming limp (often the legs) — this can lead to falling
Drooping eyelids and head
The body slumps over if sitting
Potential loss of awareness
It’s possible to have just one atonic seizure or many around the same time.
This seizure category includes:
Focal-aware seizures (also known as “simple partial seizures”) are usually harmless⁶ but can cause severe symptoms.
People with this type of focal onset seizure may experience:
Tingling and numbness
Rapid eye movement
Aura (a feeling or sensation) and hallucinations
Muscle tightening or jerking
Focal impaired awareness seizures (formerly “complex partial seizures”) start in one side of the brain. They cause a change of awareness throughout.
The person will typically stop what they were doing and stare.
Other symptoms include:
Involuntary movements (like a hand rubbing or lip-smacking)
Awareness is impaired but not lost
Laughing, screaming, or crying
Repeating words and phrases
Gelastic seizures are also known as laughing seizures because they’re characterized by symptoms normally associated with laughing.
The person may show symptoms such as:
Sudden laughter attacks with or without a specific happy feeling
Smirking or smiling slightly
Seizures cause different symptoms from person to person. They can occur before, during, and after the seizure. Symptoms depend on the type of seizure you have.
Speak to a doctor about your symptoms to get a diagnosis and begin a treatment plan. If a friend or family member experiences seizures, take note of their symptoms and encourage them to speak to a medical professional. This way, you can learn how to best support them and keep them safe during a seizure.
You may feel several warning signs before a seizure. These can include an “out of body” experience, detachment or confusion, and tingling sensations across the body (particularly in the hands and feet). These feelings are known as auras and often act as a pre-seizure warning.
You may not know you are having a seizure. This depends on the type.
Generalized seizures cause loss of consciousness or awareness, but you may be partially aware during a focal seizure.
You might get a warning sign of an oncoming seizure (an aura). This gives you time to prepare, for example, by making sure you’re in a safe place or position.
When a friend or family member has a seizure, you may wonder if they are in pain.
Some people report feeling pain during seizures when conscious, but these cases are uncommon.⁷ Seizures often cause unconsciousness or amnesia.
However, you may feel pain as a side effect of muscle contractions or an injury you got during the seizure. You may also get a headache afterward.
Types of seizures | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Tonic seizures | Epilepsy Foundation
Clonic seizures | Epilepsy Foundation
Absence seizure (2022)
Myoclonic seizures | Epilepsy Foundation
Partial epilepsy (2022)
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