Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Uncontrolled muscle activity is the most common form of partial seizure. This can either be tonic (increased muscle tone) or clonic (rhythmic muscle contractions). Usually this involves the face, neck, or limbs. One classic appearance is the forceful turning of the head and eyes to one side. Sometimes complex movements such as lip-smacking, sucking, or swallowing can occur. These might be confused with the tics of Tourette’s syndrome. Sometimes partial seizures can appear somewhat intentional, as when a seizure makes someone pull at clothing or caress an object. A partial seizure in the part of the brain that directs the “flight” response might even send someone running aimlessly.
Sensory seizures are more difficult to detect. An explosion of activity in the auditory centers of the brain might cause someone to suddenly hear things that aren’t there. If the seizure is in the back of the head, all manner of visual disturbance might occur, from temporary blindness, to flashes of light, to complex visual hallucinations. Auditory or visual hallucinations might even be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia or some other mental illness. Olfactory seizures, in which people smell aromas that are not present, may be either pleasant or revolting. Gustatory seizures, with bursts of taste sensation, are rare.
Suddenly the world starts to spin out of control, and you are falling. Paroxysmal vertigo is another type of partial seizure. Terror!!! Seizures in primitive reaches of the brain can produce states of absolute fear. Or states of vague anxiety can be partial seizures. Seizures in the limbic system of the brain can produce spasms of depression — or the sensation of total well-being.
Seizures can thrust vivid memories into consciousness, or distorted, mangled memories. They can create dream-like states, sudden nightmares, and states of unreality or detachment. Partial seizures can slow time to a syrupy pace, or make it seem to rush by in fast-action fury.
Sometimes partial sensory seizures are as subtle as periods of numbness, discomfort, or pain in parts of the body. Sometimes, rather than creating new sensations, they merely distort those that are already there.
Sometimes only the body’s internal regulatory parts of the brain are affected by a partial seizure — there might be a sudden increase in the amount of saliva, or in the speed of stool through the intestines.
Many of the symptoms that can be produced by partial seizures are common. Only when they are triggered outside the normal pathways of brain function are they seizures. The potential for each of them is, after all, present in each of our brains.
Last reviewed: February 06, 2008