Witnessing a person having a seizure can be frightening, but not all seizures consist of jerky movements, tongue-biting and a loss of consciousness. With complex partial seizures, you don’t see the jerky movements that most people associate with a seizure. Complex partial seizures symptoms are less dramatic – but far from “normal.”
Complex partial seizures are called “partial,” because they come from abnormal electrical impulses in a small area of the brain, unlike generalized seizures where abnormal electrical impulses involve the entire brain. People with complex partial seizures usually have only brief changes in their level of consciousness during a seizure. They may be unaware of their surroundings and become unresponsive to people during an “episode,” which can last from 20 seconds up to several minutes.
People with complex partial seizures rarely respond to others around them during a seizure, but if you watch them closely, you may see them doing rather strange things. These atypical behaviors are called automatisms. These are movements carried out without a person’s awareness. Some typical automatisms or automatic behaviors people with partial complex seizures engage in are lip smacking, moaning, chewing motions, picking at clothing, repeatedly swallowing, or repetitive movements of the arms or legs. An individual having a complex partial seizure is typically unaware of these movements and won’t remember them once they recover from their seizure.
If you look closely at a person having a complex partial seizure, you might believe they’re having a stroke, drinking too much alcohol, or taking an illegal substance. They often appear confused, disoriented or simply “out of it.” Once they emerge from their seizure after several seconds to minutes, they usually don’t remember what happened – and it may take time for them to return to their normal level of consciousness.
In some cases, people with complex partial seizures have an “aura” beforehand. This early warning sign of an impending seizure may be pleasant, such as a feeling of euphoria, or disturbing like feeling of unreality or fear. Some people with complex partial seizures have visual or auditory hallucinations just prior to or during a complex partial seizure.
As you can see, complex partial seizure symptoms are quite variable, and they depend upon which portion of the brain that has abnormal electrical activity. Fortunately, the symptoms are short-lived in most cases – and complex partial seizures are rarely life-threatening.
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.
Medscape Reference. “Complex Partial Seizures: Clinical Presentation”