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Epilepsy - How do doctors diagnose epilepsy?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

If you (or your child) have a seizure, it doesn't mean you have epilepsy. Many people have a seizure at some point in their life and never have another.

Diagnosing epilepsy can be difficult. So, if you have a seizure that could be due to epilepsy, your GP should send you to a specialist.

Most of the time, doctors say a person has epilepsy only after they've had at least two seizures.[29] But before making this diagnosis, your doctor will ask lots of questions and run some tests.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the government body that advises doctors about tests and treatments, says you should see a specialist within two weeks if you have a seizure that could be due to epilepsy.[12]

Questions your doctor may ask

Your doctor may ask the following types of questions.

  • Questions about the seizures. Your doctor may ask how the seizures felt, how long they lasted and if anything might have triggered them. Your doctor may also ask anyone who saw you having a seizure to describe what happened.

  • Questions about other conditions. Your doctor may ask questions and run tests to rule out other conditions that can cause seizures.[8] You may be asked about your mental health to make sure you don't have problems such as panic attacks. You may also be asked questions about how well you can learn new things. Epilepsy is more common in people who have learning disabilities.[12]

  • Questions about your family history. Your doctor may ask if anyone in your family has had epilepsy. If someone has, this increases your chance of getting the condition.[8]

Tests your doctor may suggest

If the specialist thinks you have epilepsy, he or she will probably recommend scans and other tests to learn more about the seizures and what might be causing them.[12] To learn about the tests you or your child might have, see Tests for epilepsy.

Finding answers

The specialist will use all this information to answer the following questions.[8][1]

  • Are you or your child definitely having seizures? Sometimes other conditions, such as severe migraines and mini-strokes, can cause symptoms that look like seizures.

  • Is epilepsy causing the seizures? You or your child may have seizures that are not caused by epilepsy. To learn more, see Non-epileptic seizures. Also, some illnesses, diseases and injuries can cause seizures that stop when the condition gets better.

  • Do you or your child have a specific type of epilepsy? The seizure pattern (the type of seizure and how often they happen) and your family history will help your doctor decide what type of epilepsy you or your child has. To learn more, see Epilepsy syndromes.

  • What type (or types) of seizures are you or your child having? There are many different types of seizures related to epilepsy, each with a different set of symptoms. (To learn more, see What are the symptoms of epilepsy?) Knowing the type of seizure will help you and your doctor decide on the best treatment.

Once you've been diagnosed with epilepsy, you should have regular check-ups. To read more, see the section on regular check-ups for people with epilepsy in Taking epilepsy drugs.

Last Updated: June 20, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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