The symptoms of epilepsy vary depending on what kind of seizure the person has. Possibly the simplest way of explaining this is to give an overview of what the different kinds of seizure would look like to an observer and feel like to the person experiencing them.
Partial seizures are often called ‘petit mal’. To the outside observer, the signs of this are not obvious ones. In the simple partial seizure the person first has what is famously called an ‘aura’. This is actually the first part of the seizure activity. There is no loss of awareness however, which can make it seem like a separate phenomenon. The aura is not necessarily a set of lights shimmering in front of the person. It is equally likely to involve a sense of numbness or tingling in some part of the body. Alternatively, there may be a compulsive twitching start in the face of some other familiar part of the body. It can be very unpleasant, like nausea or increased heart rate. However, the aura has also been described as ecstatic and may come in the form of hallucinations that are considered by the person to be worth the pain of the seizure that will inevitably follow.
The next type of epileptic seizure is the complex partial seizure. To the observer, the epilepsy symptoms are obvious and disturbing. In this type of seizure the person does lose consciousness and they can proceed to behavior that is so odd and out of character that they can be a danger to themselves and others. This behavior can involve taking off clothes, doing strange random actions, walking around and mumbling. The variety is endless and quite individual and these seizures can last from 30 seconds to 3 minutes.
The more common conception of an epileptic seizure is of someone having a ‘fit’. This is the generalized tonic-clonic seizure, or ‘grand mal’ beginning with a sudden cry and a fall. The stiffening of the body that starts the process is called the tonic, the spasms and jerking that follow is called the clonic. This can look quite alarming, especially if the person manages to bite their tongue and blood appears. It usually lasts for only about 2 minutes, which can feel like an eternity if you are the onlooker. The person usually needs some care and reassurance when they come around as they are likely to feel confused and extremely tired after the epilepsy symptoms pass.
Finally there is a general group of tonic and myclonic seizures. The myoclonics involve significant muscle jerks, causing the person to spill what they are holding or even to fall off the chair. Among the tonic disorders here are two types of ‘drop’ attack, so called because they cause the person to fall to the ground if they happen to be standing. The ‘tonic’ causes the person to go rigid, while the ‘atonic’ predictably causes the person to lose all tone and also fall for that reason. In none of these last seizures is there any noticeable loss of consciousness.