The difference between epileptic and dissociative seizures

  • August 11, 2021
  • 3
In this article

Did you know that one person in ten will have at least one seizure during their lives? However, only about one person in 100 has epilepsy. Epilepsy is the most widely known cause of seizures, but there are many other types of non-epileptic seizures too (also known as dissociative seizures or psychogenic seizures). 

What are dissociative seizures, what are the main non-epileptic seizures causes, and how are they diagnosed and treated? 

The difference between epileptic and dissociative seizures

A dissociative seizure can ‘look’ like an epileptic seizure. Someone having a non-epileptic seizure might:

  • Stare blankly into the distance
  • Experience muscle spasms
  • Become unconscious
  • Twitch or shake uncontrollably
  • Have difficulties speaking, moving, seeing or feeling

These symptoms may just happen once, or they could occur repeatedly. 

However, these symptoms do not necessarily mean the person has epilepsy. This is because an epileptic seizure is strictly defined as: “a sudden alteration of behavior due to a temporary change in the electrical functioning of the brain”. 

A seizure is only epileptic if it is caused by unusual electrical behavior in the brain - seizures caused by anything else are not epileptic. 

Learn more: What happens in your brain during a seizure?

What are the main non-epileptic seizure causes?

There are two main types of non-epileptic seizure. These are:

  1. Psychogenic seizures

Psychogenic seizures are when emotional stress causes the person to have seizure-like symptoms. People who are going through very difficult situations, or who have had traumatic experiences in the past may have this kind of seizure. 

The most common are ‘dissociative seizures’, where the person is not aware that their emotional stress is causing them to pass out or shake uncontrollably. People may also experience panic attacks, where they tremble or even lose consciousness. 

Learn more: Read our 7 tips to relieve stress and relax

  1. Organic seizures

This is when the thing causing the seizure is down to a problem in the person’s body. People might have organic seizures because they have very low blood-sugar levels (due to diabetes or diet), dehydration or a heart problem that causes them to faint, among other things. 

Non-epileptic seizures treatment pathway

If you are having seizures, it is very important to get to the bottom of what is causing them. 

People with epilepsy are usually given drugs that are designed to control seizures by helping regulate electrical activity in the brain. However, if they are actually having dissociative seizures or the cause is a heart-problem, then the drugs won’t work - and they’ll keep having seizures. 

If you have tried two or more epilepsy drugs without success, it’s important to visit a specialist epilepsy center to find out if you have been misdiagnosed or have drug-resistant epilepsy.

To work out if your seizures are caused by epilepsy or something else, your doctor will:

  • Ask you to tell them your medical history and the circumstances surrounding your seizures
  • Ask friends or family who have seen your seizures to describe them
  • Conduct a brain scan to find out if the cause is a brain tumor or other damage
  • Use an EEG machine to see if there is unusual electrical activity in your brain

Seizure freedom is the goal for everyone

Seizures can be worrying experiences - whether they are caused by epilepsy or you are having dissociative seizures. And this is why it is so important to speak to an epilepsy expert who can diagnose exactly what is causing your seizures - and help you choose the right treatment. 

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