Types of Epilepsy

Epilepsy isn't one disease or condition. There are many kinds of epilepsy with different symptoms and patterns. It's important to know what kind you have.


Experts now divide epilepsy into four basic types based on the seizures you’re having:

  • Generalized epilepsy

  • Focal epilepsy

  • Generalized and focal epilepsy

  • Unknown if generalized or focal epilepsy

Generalized Epilepsy

If you have this type of epilepsy, seizures start on both sides of the brain (or quickly affect networks of brain cells on both sides). This type of epilepsy has two basic kinds of seizures:

Generalized motor seizures

These used to be called grand mal seizures. They cause your body to move in ways you can’t control, sometimes dramatically. Tonic-clonic seizures are one example. When it hits, you lose consciousness and your muscles stiffen and jerk. Other types you may hear your doctor talk about include clonic, tonic, and myoclonic.

Generalized non-motor (or absence) seizures

They used to be called petit mal seizures. Some specific types you may hear your doctor mention are typical, atypical, and myoclonic.

During this type of seizure, you may stop what you’re doing and stare into space. You may also do the same movements over and over, like smacking your lips. These types of seizures are generally called absence seizures because it’s like the person isn’t really there.

Focal Epilepsy

In this type of epilepsy, seizures develop in a particular area (or network of brain cells) on one side of the brain. These used to be called partial seizures.

Focal epilepsy seizures come in four categories:

Focal aware seizures

If you know what’s happening during the seizure, it’s an aware seizure. These used to be called simple partial seizures.

Focal impaired awareness seizures

If you’re confused or don’t know what’s happening during your seizure or don’t remember it, it’s an impaired awareness seizure. These used to be called complex partial seizures.

Focal motor seizures

In this type of seizure, you’ll move to some extent anything from twitching, to spasms, to rubbing hands, to walking around. Some types that you may hear your doctor talk about are atonic, clonic, epileptic spasms, myoclonic, and tonic.

Focal non-motor seizures

This type of seizure doesn’t lead to twitches or other movements. Instead, it causes changes in how you feel or think. You might have intense emotions, strange feelings, or symptoms like a racing heart, goose bumps, or waves of heat or cold.

Generalized and Focal Epilepsy

Just as the name suggests, this is a type of epilepsy where people have both generalized and focal seizures.

Unknown if Generalized or Focal Epilepsy

  • Sometimes, doctors are sure that a person has epilepsy, but they don’t know whether the seizures are focal or generalized.

  • This can happen if you were alone when you had seizures, so no one can describe what happened.

  • Your doctor may also classify your epilepsy type as unknown if generalized or focal epilepsy if your test results aren’t clear.

Epilepsy Syndromes

  • In addition to a type of epilepsy, you could also have an epilepsy syndrome.

  • These are more specific than the type. Doctors diagnose syndromes based on a bunch of symptoms or signs that tend to go together as well as the results of testing (MRI and EEG), which helps to classify the syndrome.

  • Some of these features include the age you started getting seizures, the type of seizures you have, your triggers, the time of day seizures happen, and more.

  • There are dozens of epilepsy seizure syndromes. Some include West syndrome, Doose syndrome, Rasmussen’s syndrome, and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

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