Diagnosing epilepsy

Many people have a single isolated seizure at some point in their lives. But if a person has more than one epileptic seizure then a diagnosis of epilepsy is usually considered. 

A person is diagnosed as having epilepsy if they have a tendency to experience spontaneous seizures that arise in the brain. The person who has had the seizure might not remember what actually happened, so it helps to have information from someone who has witnessed the seizure. When visiting the doctor, details of what happened before, during and after the seizure can be very important in making a diagnosis. If the GP feels that epilepsy is a possibility, the patient will be referred to a specialist, usually a neurologist. A neurologist will usually arrange medical investigations which may not be conclusive and will also consider other possible causes for the events.

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At the hospital a number of tests can be carried out which may or may not support a diagnosis of epilepsy, although not everyone needs to have every test. These tests may also help to find out if a cause for the seizures can be identified. Tests can include EEGs, blood tests and brain scans. A diagnosis of epilepsy is primarily made on clinical grounds. The medical history of a person and video of seizures, if available is very important.

Some of the people we interviewed recalled having a medical history taken and what this involved. Many of those we talked to discussed other tests that were done to reach a diagnosis. Although some people noted that they did not remember tests very clearly, others described them in detail. One man explained that a brain tumour, which was discovered during the tests, was causing his seizures.

People also described what they remembered of having EEGs and brain scans. While some explained that the MRI scan was painless and part of the process, a few people felt claustrophobic. One woman recalled that her tests went on for over two years and she described her feelings when she watched her seizures on video. Several people noted that they would have liked more information about the diagnostic tests, why they were being done and what they proved (see 'Finding Information on epilepsy').

For many people waiting for a diagnosis can be worrying. One man discussed some of the difficulties with diagnosing epilepsy. Some people recalled what they went through before a diagnosis was made. In one man the various tests he had had proved that his seizures were actually non-epileptic (see 'Non-epileptic attacks').

For more information see our resources section.

Last reviewed May 2016.
Last updated March 2014.


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