What is Idiopathic Generalized Epilepsy? - Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Justine Fritzel

Justine has been a Registered Nurse for 10 years and has a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree.

In this lesson, we will learn about idiopathic generalized epilepsy. We will learn what that means and what kind of seizures are associated with this type of epilepsy.


Billy is a healthy 4-year-old boy, growing and developing normally. His mom noticed that he has picked up a bad habit of daydreaming. At first she didn't think much of it, but it was happening often enough that it was becoming a problem. Sometimes she could literally be right in front of him trying to get his attention and he would continue to stare right through her. He would respond after a short time, but she was becoming concerned and discussed this with his pediatrician.

The pediatrician said that Billy may be experiencing seizures and recommended a further follow-up with a neurologist. This was hard for Billy's mom to believe; this didn't look like any seizure she had heard of before. She really believed he was just a daydreamer and thought the pediatrician was being overly concerned.

Epileptic seizures are a result of abnormal electrical activity within the brain. You have probably witnessed a lightning storm before. You could compare the abnormal electrical activity in the brain to a lightning storm -- powerful strikes of electricity firing rapidly and randomly!

The lightning storm can occur in any part of the brain and depending on what part of the brain is affected indicates what the symptoms of the seizure will look like. There are numerous types of seizures and they can all look very different from one another.

Defining Idiopathic Generalized Epilepsy

Billy visits the neurologist the next week and they do an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the electrical activity within the brain. His mom expects the results of the EEG to be normal and is quite surprised when the neurologist tells her that he is seeing seizure activity on the EEG.

''Why did he develop a seizure disorder? What caused this?'' Billy's mom asks. After further tests and work-up, the neurologist tells her that Billy has idiopathic generalized epilepsy.

Idiopathic generalized epilepsy is the diagnosis when there is no known cause of the seizure disorder. Tests show normal brain structure and no nervous system abnormalities, except for the seizure activity itself. Most people with idiopathic generalized epilepsy have a family history of epilepsy and the seizures appear in childhood.

As we mentioned, there are numerous types of seizures and there are different seizures that are associated with idiopathic generalized epilepsy.

Types of Seizures in Idiopathic Generalized Epilepsy

The seizure that Billy was experiencing is called an absence seizure. In an absence seizure, the person has staring spells or appears to be daydreaming. It's like a house with the lights on, but nobody's home. The person is awake, but will not be able to respond during the seizure. These can be subtle, but can impact quality of life as it can interfere with socialization and learning.

Another type of seizure associated with idiopathic generalized epilepsy is a myoclonic seizure. In a myoclonic seizure, a person will have a sudden jerking of an extremity. You have probably experienced the feeling of falling asleep at night and right when you are almost asleep, you suddenly jerk! That is a myoclonic action.

Tonic-clonic seizures may also occur in idiopathic generalized epilepsy. A tonic-clonic seizure is what most people picture when they hear the word seizure. A person will lose consciousness and fall to the ground. Their muscles will contract and jerk rhythmically.

Seizures generally last for a short duration less than two minutes. As we mentioned, idiopathic generalized epilepsy appears in childhood and sometimes children will outgrow the seizures.

Lesson Summary

Epileptic seizures occur due to abnormal electrical activity within the brain. Epilepsy is diagnosed with an electroencephalogram (EEG) that measures the electrical activity of the brain.

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