Formula Medical Group
Apple Valley, CA

James Krider, MD

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Convulsions are sudden bursts of uncontrolled muscle contractions that are almost always accompanied by a loss of consciousness. During a convulsion, the person loses control over voluntary skeletal muscles, resulting in jerking or twitching movements. The abnormal movements are caused by a generalized contraction, or series of contractions, of skeletal muscles.

There are many different types of convulsions. Some, such as those experienced in epilepsy, are always accompanied by a loss of consciousness. In others, the twitching may occur while the person is fully conscious. In such cases, the convulsions are likely to be a symptom of an underlying disease or a reaction to a drug or some other toxic substance.

Causes of convulsions

Brain tumors
A brain tumor, which may be benign or cancerous, can cause convulsions. Initial symptoms, depending on the site of the tumor, may include disturbances in balance, sight and smell, or unexplained weakness in the muscles of the extremities. Headaches may develop, occurring intermittently at first and then becoming constant and severe, and may be accompanied by persistent nausea and vomiting, mental deterioration, unexplained personality changes, and convulsions.

Cerebral palsy
This disorder affects babies and young children and is the result of damage to the motor centers of the brain, leading to muscular incoordination that may range from slight to severe. A large percentage of children with cerebral palsy have related neurologic complications. Symptoms in infancy include convulsions, twitching, spasticity of the arms and legs, lethargy, excitability, high-pitched crying, and slow development. Some of these symptoms abate as the child grows.

Convulsive seizures are common in most types of epilepsy. The attacks usually begin with a loss of consciousness and motor control and jerking of all extremities. The hands are clenched, arms and legs jerk, muscles twitch, the face darkens, and the person falls into unconsciousness. The seizures are usually brief, and when the person wakens, he or she has no memory of them.

A high fever often causes convulsions, especially in young children. Any high temperature (over 102 degrees) in a child under 3 years of age is an indication to call the pediatrician as soon as possible.

Kidney failure
Acute kidney failure is a sudden, usually temporary loss of kidney function. Although this type of sudden kidney failure is usually reversible, temporary use of an artificial kidney machine {dialysis) may be needed to cleanse the blood of waste products. The first and major sign is failure to urinate or scanty urine output. Later there is persistent nausea, vomiting, lethargy, drowsiness, diarrhea, breathing disturbances, dry skin and membranes, twitching, and convulsions. Unless treated, death follows.

Low blood sugar
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, most commonly occurs in people with diabetes who have injected more insulin than is required at the time. Hypoglycemia also may be caused by excessive alcohol use or as an adverse reaction to certain medications. Symptoms include weakness, dizziness, palpitations, shaking, sweating, blurred vision, headache, strange behavior, disorientation, mood swings, and, in severe cases, convulsions and coma.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain. It is a serious disease, usually caused by a virus or other infection. Among the symptoms are high and erratic fever, unremitting headache, a stiff and painful neck, and vomiting. There may also be intolerance to light and sound. Children are particularly likely to exhibit twitching, convulsions, and vomiting.

Toxemia of pregnancy
Toxemia, or Pre-eclampsia, usually occurs during the third trimester of pregnancy. Initially, symptoms are mild, and may include loss of appetite, persistent and unexplained weakness, and headaches. Blood pressure is also elevated. If it is not arrested, however, Pre-eclampsia can develop into full-blown eclampsia, which produces violent convulsions, coma, and frequently death of the mother and/or the fetus.

Advice about convulsions

  • A convulsion is a sign of a serious underlying problem. Report any such incidents to a doctor as soon as possible.
  • If you are pregnant, see your doctor regularly. Good prenatal care can keep serious problems such as pre-eclampsia under control.
  • Be alert to any high fever in a baby or young child, especially if he or she has had febrile seizures in the past.
  • In administering first aid to a person who is having convulsions, DO NOT at tempt to force anything into his or her mouth. Contrary to popular belief, there is no danger that the person will "swallow his or her tongue."
This article was last reviewed October 20, 2005 by Dr. James Krider.
Reproduced in part with permission of Home Health Handbook.

Brain cancer
Cerebral palsy
Diabetes med's.
Kidney failure, acute
Petit mal seizures

Tonic/clonic seizures
Taking a baby's temp

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