A convulsion, sometimes known as a fit, is a medical condition characterized by the involuntary contraction and spasm of the muscles, resulting in uncontrolled and erratic movement of the body.
A convulsion can be initiated by any number of medical conditions such as epilepsy, trauma to the head, an inflammatory brain infection, a severe fever, or certain medications.
Convulsions and seizures are often used interchangeably. They, however, mean very different things. A seizure describes an electrical imbalance in the brain, while convulsions are erratic and often violent contractions of the muscles.
Although convulsions are often associated with epileptic seizures, not all epileptic seizures lead to convulsions. A convulsive episode does not necessarily imply that epilepsy is the cause.
It is essential to seek medical advice if you have a history of convulsions, or you know someone that does. Neurologists, infectious disease specialists, or pharmacologists are some of the specialists you can visit. The root cause of the condition determines the treatment of the condition.
The most common type of convulsion is a generalized convulsion, which is also referred to as a tonic-clonic seizure, or grand mal seizure. The generalized convulsion is characterized by loss of consciousness, which may lead to the physical collapse of the individual.
The body becomes rigid for a moment and then begins to jerk violently. During this time, the patient may injure themselves, lose control of their bladder, or bite the tongue.
A generalized seizure can occur as a symptom of epilepsy by it is not synonymous with epilepsy. Some forms of epilepsy can manifest as only minor twitches and ticks, and changes in consciousness.
A family history of convulsions may predispose one to be convulsive.
Causes of Convulsions
Epilepsy, a chronic neurological condition, is a known cause of convulsion. It involves recurring seizures that are not caused by another known condition.
Also, fever is another known cause of convulsion. When caused by a fever, it is called a febrile seizure. This type of convulsion occurs mostly in infants and children who experience a sudden spike in body temperature.
The temperature change can happen very fast that you may not even be aware of the fever until the convulsion. However, a history of febrile convulsion does not increase one’s risk of developing epilepsy.
Other conditions that could lead to convulsions include:
- Brain tumor
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- A sudden drop in blood pressure
- Heart diseases
- Infections of the brain or spinal fluid
Signs and Symptoms of Convulsions
Convulsions are typically visible. They may involve the entire body or could affect only certain parts of the body, like the arms or legs.
The condition may occur briefly, usually last for just a few seconds, or could go on for a while, increasing one’s risk of injury or trauma.
The severity of convulsions is dependent on the underlying cause and the part of the brain that is being affected. Some of the possible signs of a convulsive episode include:
- Sudden shaking of the whole body
- Erratic spasms or jerking
- Eyes rolling to the back of the head
- A clenched jaw
- A stiff body
- Loss of bladder control
- Loss of consciousness
- Loss of control over the body
Convulsions are different from tremors. Tremors involve uncontrollable trembling and have a variety of causes such as alcohol withdrawal or Parkinson’s disease.
Convulsions are first diagnosed by reviewing the patient’s medical and family history. A physical exam would follow this.
Because convulsions occur chiefly as a result of abnormal brain activity, the tests to be performed are those that primarily focus on possible neurological conditions that could trigger abnormal brain activity.
This would involve a series of tests to assess mental status, balance and coordination, motor functions, sensory response, and reflexes. This enables the doctor to have a good idea of the underlying cause of the condition.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) test will be required if the doctor suspects a neurological disorder. This involves connecting electrodes to the head in order to measure the brain’s electrical activity.
Abnormal brain patterns may indicate that the possible cause is epilepsy, brain tumor, head injury, or other neurological disorders.
The doctor may require a blood test to check for the presence of an infection or the signs of electrolyte imbalance and markers of inflammation.
The doctor will order a blood test to measure prolactin hormone levels in the blood if epilepsy is suspected. This will be used to determine if the convulsive episodes are caused by epilepsy or another disorder.
The doctor may also order a lumbar puncture, which involves inserting a needle into the lower spine to extract fluid. This will be used if meningitis is suspected.
These tests may be ordered to check for brain lesions, tumors, clots, and signs of bleed in the brain. Examples of imaging tests include:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This uses magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of the brain.
- Computerized tomography (CT): This uses x-rays to collect cross-sectional images of the brain
- Positron emission tomography (PET): This makes use of a low dosage of radioactive materials which are injected into a vein to check for cancerous cells.
The treatment of convulsions is dependent on the underlying cause. If the convulsive episode occurs in isolation – such as that caused by head trauma, an infection, or a diabetic crisis – treatment options would be based on findings.
In some cases, hospitalizing the patient may also be required.
Certain medications are capable of inducing a convulsive episode. Treatment would, therefore, require a change in medication or an adjustment of dosage in order to prevent future occurrences.
If the root cause of the convulsion is epilepsy, this would be treated with anti-epileptic drugs such as Tegretol, Topamax, and Lamictal. Surgery and a change in diet may also be required.
In case of emergencies
If you witness a convulsive episode, it is best to call an ambulance and ensure that there is no risk of the person injuring themselves by removing sharp or hard objects around them. Try to keep others from crowding around the person.
Do not put anything in their mouth or try to hold them down when they are having a seizure. Instead, lay them on their side to keep their airways clear and to avoid being suffocated if there is vomiting.