Convulsions Explained

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Hammond, M.D.
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Convulsions involve involuntary muscle spasms and jerking. They are a type of seizure as well as a symptom of other types of seizures and epilepsy.  This article discusses the difference between convulsions and seizures, the types of convulsions, and when you should contact a doctor. 

What are convulsions?

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If you have convulsions, it means that you are having a medical event wherein your muscles contract, jerk, or spasm. You may notice your body suddenly making involuntary movements or going rigid. These movements can last several seconds to several minutes and may affect the entire body or just one area. Typically, this means that you will also lose consciousness.

Convulsions are due to brain activity that affects the nerve cells. They are a symptom of several health conditions, such as fever and very low blood sugar. Convulsions are also a type of seizure formally known as tonic-clonic seizures.

Treating convulsions depends on what is causing them. In some cases, such as after a high fever in children, treatment may not be necessary. However, if you have recurring convulsions or seizures, your healthcare professional may talk with you about starting a medication to manage the condition. 

Convulsions vs. seizures 

Seizures and convulsions appear to look the same, and people often use the two terms interchangeably. However, there are differences. 

When you have a seizure, it means that there is unusual electrical activity in the brain. Convulsions, which are a type of seizure, involve muscle jerking and contractions that occur involuntarily. This means that you cannot control these movements. If you have a seizure, you may not necessarily experience convulsions. 

There are several different types of seizures, and your symptoms will depend on which of these types you have. 

You can have convulsions with a seizure, and you can have a seizure without having convulsions. Having convulsions might mean that you have epilepsy, which is a condition that causes recurring seizures. However, convulsions can also occur without epilepsy.  

Learn about nine things doctors want you to know about epilepsy.

What are the causes of convulsions?

There are several possible causes of convulsions. The following sections look at these in more detail.

Fever 

Known as febrile convulsions or febrile seizures, these can occur when there is a sudden rise in body temperature. It mostly affects infants and young children ages 6 months to 5 years.

If a child has a febrile seizure, they have a 33% chance of having another. The chances are higher if there is a family history of febrile seizures or if they are younger than 12 months of age. 

Febrile convulsions typically last less than 15 minutes, and they usually occur if a fever is higher than 101ºF (38ºC). They can cause parents and caregivers a lot of anxiety, but they do not usually leave any lasting effects. 

Epilepsy

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, this condition causes someone to have recurring seizures. If you have had more than one seizure that has no medical explanation, your doctor may diagnose epilepsy. 

Tonic-clonic epilepsy is a type of epilepsy that causes convulsions. However, you can have different types of seizures with epilepsy, and not all of them cause convulsions. For example, absence seizures involve a person staring off into space and being unresponsive during these electrical bursts in the brain. 

Epilepsy is the world’s fourth most common neurological condition. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 70% of people with epilepsy can prevent seizures by using appropriate antiseizure medications and taking other steps to manage their condition.

Non-epileptic seizures

Non-epileptic seizures look similar to epileptic seizures but do not actually have bursts of electrical activity in the brain. In fact, doctors sometimes misdiagnose them as epilepsy.

Instead, non-epileptic seizures can happen as a result of mental stress. Treatment usually involves cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a type of psychological therapy, to manage this stress.  

Non-epileptic seizures can also be due to conditions such as:

Other causes of convulsions 

There are some other reasons you might experience convulsions, including the following:

  • Brain tumor: If you have a brain tumor, you might experience seizures. This is one of the symptoms of a brain tumor.
  • Medication reaction: It is rare, but some medications can cause you to have convulsions. These include bupropion, which is a type of antidepressant.
  • Migraine: According to an older study, migraine may bring on a type of epileptic seizure known as migralepsy. 
  • Very low blood sugar: Seizures are sometimes a symptom of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, especially if left untreated. 

Read more about the types of seizures.

What are the symptoms of convulsions?

Typically, the symptoms of convulsions are easy to notice. You may experience:

  • changes in breathing patterns
  • being unable to talk or move your body on your own
  • muscle stiffening
  • the eyes rolling back in the head
  • a loss of consciousness
  • drooling
  • a loss of bowel or bladder control
  • a clenched jaw
  • rhythmic jerking of the upper and lower extremities and head

When should you contact a doctor for convulsions?

If you have convulsions, it does not necessarily mean that you need to get immediate medical care. However, there are circumstances where you should call 911 or get help immediately. These include the following situations:

  • You have had convulsions for the first time.
  • The convulsions last longer than 5 minutes.
  • You have a second seizure right after the first.
  • The convulsion has caused an injury.
  • You notice difficulty breathing or difficulty moving around.
  • You have a medical condition.
  • You are pregnant.
  • Someone does not wake up after a convulsion.

How can you help someone experiencing convulsions?

Helping someone who is having convulsions is similar to someone who is having a seizure.

Tips for how to help someone experiencing convulsions

Some ways you can keep that person safe include the following:

  • Keep yourself and the other person calm.
  • Speak calmly.
  • Do not hold them down or put anything in their mouth during convulsions.
  • Turn them on their side, if possible.
  • Stay with the person and reassure them that they are safe. Once the convulsion has stopped, let them know what happened using simple sentences. 
  • Do not give them any food or water until they are completely alert and awake.
  • Check for a medical bracelet or any other emergency information they may have on them. 
  • Call someone to help the person get home if they are in a public space. 

Summary

Convulsions involve muscle spasms and jerking that can last up to several minutes. They are a type of seizure as well as a symptom of other types of seizures, such as epilepsy. However, having convulsions does not necessarily mean that you have epilepsy.

There are several types of convulsions, and treatment depends on what is causing them. It is important to know when to call a doctor if you have convulsions. It is also helpful to know how to care for someone who is having them. 

Your doctor can help you figure out how to treat convulsions or prevent them from occurring in the first place. 

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.