What are Complex Partial Seizures?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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Complex partial seizures are a form of focal seizure, meaning that they originate in a specific area of the brain, characterized by decreased awareness. Although someone is awake during a complex partial seizure and may have his or her eyes open, the person will remain nonresponsive during the seizure, and commonly does not remember the seizure after it is over. This type of seizure is sometimes referred to as psychomotor epilepsy.

People can develop complex partial seizures for any number of reasons, ranging from a congenital condition to an insult to the brain such as trauma caused by an accident. The seizures can last 30 seconds to several minutes, and may vary in intensity. The symptoms also vary, depending on where the seizure is located, although the temporal and frontal lobes are common points of origin for a complex partial seizure.

Most patients experience what is described as a seizure aura before they have complex partial seizures. The aura may include visual disturbances, changes in the sense of smell and touch, or simply a strange feeling. For patients accustomed to seizures, the aura can be a warning sign which gives the patient and people around her or him to prepare.


During a complex partial seizure, people often engage in what are known as automatisms. Automatisms are purposeless movements like clenching the fists, licking, moving the mouth, or even walking and talking. The patient is not making a conscious choice to engage in these movements, and cannot stop them voluntarily. During a complex partial seizure, people can talk to the patient, but she or he will not respond, or will respond with nonsense words.

People who experience complex partial seizures can develop memory loss. They may not remember the events which occurred during the seizure aura, and will not remember the seizure itself. Repeat seizures can be tiring, and people may fall asleep or feel fatigued for the rest of the day after the seizures. People with complex partial seizures may experience other impairments, or not, depending on the reasons for their seizures.

If bystanders recognize that a seizure is occurring, they should take steps to protect the patient. As a general rule, restraint or physical contact are not recommended, unless the patient is in danger; for example, people should not try to hold someone down while he or she is having a seizure, but if someone appears to be about to step out into traffic, it is advisable to use light restraint or to redirect the patient to a safer place. Some people recommend talking to the patient during the seizure, in case the patient can understand on some level, and it is a good idea to assist the patient to sit or lie down, and to remove dangerous objects in the vicinity so that injuries are not incurred during the seizure.


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