When signals in the brain misfire for whatever reason, the result can be a seizure that can include violent, spastic movements, foaming at the mouth and loss of consciousness.

When someone has multiple seizures that are unpredictable, it may be epilepsy.

“Epilepsy is characterized by seizures but people can have a seizure without having epilepsy,” said Dr. Gabriel Martz, director of The Epilepsy Center at the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute.

Seizures, he said, can be triggered by a high fever, lack of oxygen to the brain or a head injury. The person can remain conscious or experience a full-body reaction of uncontrollable movement while unconscious.

“Some people experience sensory symptoms such as a metallic taste, the smell of ammonia or auras,” said Dr. Martz. “Other seizures might manifest in what we call ‘automatisms’ such as chewing or swallowing movements, picking at the hands or repetitive speech.”

When more than one seizure occurs, epilepsy is suspected. Diagnostic tools include MRI and electroencephalogram (EEG) testing to check brain activity. A specialist will examine the type, frequency and situation in which the seizures occur.

“It can get complicated to track the seizures because a single person with one type of epilepsy can experience a variety of different types of seizures,” said Dr. Martz.

In a seizure evaluation, the specialist will ask:

  • What happened, was it a seizure?
  • Will it happen again? Was it provoked or is it a sign of epilepsy?
  • Why did it happen?

The latter query helps determine the type of epilepsy and identify the best course of treatment.

The good news, Dr. Martz said, is that there various ways to manage epilepsy, helping help people lead full, happy lives.

“The key is finding the right treatment – which can include anti-epileptic medications – to help people live seizure-free. This works for most people with epilepsy. In more severe situations, surgery may be necessary,” Dr. Martz said.

In determining the best approach, he helps patients weigh the risks of future seizures, and injury from them, against the side effects of epilepsy medication.

Not all neurologists have advanced training in treating seizures and epilepsy. Patients whose seizures have not been controlled despite three months of care by a primary care physician or neurologist should seek care at an epilepsy center, Dr. Martz suggested.

The talk by the The Epilepsy Center’s  Dr. Gabriel Martz, “Understanding Seizures and Epilepsy,” is free but registration is required by calling 855.HHC.HERE (855.442.4373) or registering online.