Seizures and Traumatic Brain Injury

Jeffrey Englander MD, David X. Cifu MD, and Ramon Diaz-Arrastia MD, Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center
Seizures and Traumatic Brain Injury
One of the problems that can occur after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is seizures. Although most people who have a brain injury will never have a seizure, it is good to understand what a seizure is and what to do if you have one. Most seizures happen in the first several days or weeks after a brain injury. Some may occur months or years after the injury. About 70-80% of people who have seizures are helped by medications, and can return to usual activities. Rarely, seizures can make you much worse or even cause death.

What are seizures?

Seizures can happen in 1 to 5 of every ten people who have had a TBI, depending on where the injury occurred in the brain. The seizure usually happens where there is a scar in the brain as a consequence of the injury.

During a seizure there is a sudden abnormal electrical disturbance in the brain that results in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Strange movement of your head, body, arms, legs, or eyes, such as stiffening or shaking
  • Unresponsiveness and staring
  • Chewing, lip smacking, or fumbling movements
  • Strange smell, sound, feeling, taste, or visual images
  • Sudden tiredness or dizziness
  • Not being able to speak or understand others

Symptoms of a seizure happen suddenly, and you are unable to control them. Seizures usually last only a few seconds or minutes, but sometimes continue for 5 to 10 minutes. You may have a bladder or bowel accident or bite your tongue during a seizure. After the seizure, you may be drowsy, weak, confused or have a hard time talking to or understanding others. After a severe seizure, one that lasts longer than 2 minutes, it may be harder for you to stand, walk or take care of yourself for a few days or even longer.

Other conditions that could increase the risk of having a seizure include:

  • High fever
  • Loss of sleep and extreme fatigue
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Chemical changes in the body such as low sodium or magnesium, or high calcium

Seizures and TBI

  • Early post-traumatic seizures: A seizure in the first week after a brain injury is called an early post-traumatic seizure. About 25% of people who have an early post-traumatic seizure will have another seizure months or years later.
  • Late post-traumatic seizures: A seizure more than seven days after a brain injury is called a late post-traumatic seizure. About 80% of people who have a late post-traumatic seizure will have another seizure (epilepsy).
  • Epilepsy: Having more than one seizure is called epilepsy. In some people this will be a problem they have for their whole lives.
  • The cause of your brain injury can help doctors figure out how likely you are to have seizures.

    • 65% of people with brain injuries caused by bullet wounds have seizures
    • Bleeding between the brain and the skull, which is called a subdural hematoma, also may cause a seizure.
    • Over 60% of people who need 2 or more brain surgeries after a brain injury experience seizures.

    Medications to treat seizures?

    Medications that are used to control seizures are called antiepileptic drugs (AEDs). These drugs may be used for other problems, such as chronic pain, restlessness, or mood instability. You and your doctor will decide on which drug to use based on your type of seizures, how old you are, how healthy you are, and if you get any bad side effects from the medications. Side effects of AEDs usually improve after you've been taking the medication for 3-5 days.

    Some common side effects are:

    • Sleepiness or fatigue
    • Dizziness or lack of balance
    • Lightheadedness
    • Trembling
    • Double vision
    • Confusion

    Blood tests may be needed to make sure you are getting enough of the medication and to make sure the drug isn't causing other problems. These drugs rarely cause birth defects in newborns, so tell your doctor if you are pregnant or may become pregnant.

    Sometimes your doctor will prescribe two or more of these medications to stop your seizures. Some common AEDs are:

    • Carbamazepine (also known as Tegretol)
    • Lamotrigine (also known as Lamictal)
    • Levitiracetam (also known as Keppra)
    • Gabapentin (also known as Neurontin)
    • Oxcarbazepine (also known as Trileptal)
    • Phenobarbital
    • Phenytoin/ fosphenytoin (also known as Dilantin)
    • Pregabalain (also known as Lyrica)
    • Topiramate (also known as Topamax)
    • Valproic acid or valproate (also known as Depakene or Depakote)
    • Zonisamide (also known as Zonegran)

    What if the medications do not work?

    If your seizures continue even after trying medications, your doctor may refer you to a Comprehensive Epilepsy Center (CEC) for more tests and to be seen by special seizure doctors. At the CEC the doctors may do brain wave tests and take a video of you during one of your seizures to help figure out what is causing the problems. This may help to your doctor decide what drug will work best, and to see if other types of treatment will help the problems you are having.

    The website of the Epilepsy Foundation of America or the American Epilepsy Society can tell you about the nearest Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

    Safety Issues

    In most states, if you have had a seizure you cannot drive and you must notify the department of motor vehicles (DMV). Usually you won't be able to return to driving for a period of time, or until your seizures have been completely stopped. Laws vary from state to state regarding how long after a seizure you must not drive.

    Other things you should do to stay safe if your seizures have not stopped:

    • Always have someone with you if you are in water (pool, lake, ocean, bath tub).
    • Don't climb on ladders, trees, roofs or other tall objects.
    • Let people you eat with know what to do in case you have a seizure and start choking.

    What your caregiver should do if you are having a seizure

    A family member or caregiver should watch closely to what happens during a seizure, so they can explain it to medical professionals. They should make a diary describing the date, time of day, length of time, and description of each seizure. Your doctor will need this information about your seizures and the drugs you are taking to control them.

    The majority of seizures are short and do not result in significant injuries. However, it is important for your caregivers to know what to do to keep you from hurting yourself.

    What to do for someone having a seizure

    • Loosen tight clothing, including around the neck.
    • Make sure the person does not fall. Hold them steady if the person is sitting in a chair, couch or bed. If person is standing get them to the ground safely.
    • Turn them and their head to the side so that anything in the mouth, even spit, does not block the throat.
    • It can be dangerous to put anything in the mouth as you can get bitten.
    • If you know CPR, check the heart beat in the neck. Start CPR if there is no pulse. Call 911.
    • Listen for breathing at the mouth and extend the neck if breathing is difficult. If there is no breathing start CPR by sealing your lips over the person's mouth and breathing 2 quick breaths. Continue breathing for them every 5 seconds unless they start breathing on their own.
    • Call 911.
    • If this is the first seizure after TBI, call the person's doctor for advice.
    • If the seizure does not stop after 3 minutes, call 911.
    • If the seizure stops within 3 minutes, call the person's doctor.
    • If the patient does not return to normal within 20 minutes after the seizure, call 911.

    For More Information

    The Epilepsy Foundation of America Phone: 1-800-332-1000 Web:

    Brain Injury Association of America Phone: 1-800-444-6443 Web:



    This information in this booklet is not meant to replace the advice from a medical doctor. You should consult a qualified physician regarding specific medical concerns or treatment.


    Our health information content is based on research evidence and/or professional consensus and has been reviewed and approved by an editorial team of experts from the TBI Model Systems.


    Diaz-Arrastia R, Agostini MA, Frol AB, et al. Neurophysiologic and neuradiologic features of intractable epilepsy after traumatic brain injury in adults. Arch Neurol. 2000;57:1611–6. [PubMed]

    Englander J, Bushnik T, Duong TT, et al. Analyzing risk factors for late posttraumtic seizures: a prospective, mulitcenter investigation. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2003;84:365–373. [PubMed]

    Yablon SA, Dostrow VG. Post-traumatic seizures and epilepsy in Zasler ND, Katz DI, Zafonte RD, Brain Injury Medicine: Priciples and Practice. Demos; New York: 2007.

    Brain Trauma Foundation and American Association of Neurological Surgeons Management and prognosis of severe traumatic brain injury. 2000:159–165.

    Posted on BrainLine June 10, 2014. Reviewed July 26, 2018.

    Seizures After Traumatic Brain Injury was developed by Jeffrey Englander, MD, David X. Cifu, MD, and Ramon Diaz-Arrastia, MD, in collaboration with the University of Washington Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center and funded by NIDRR/U.S. D.O.E grant # H133A060070. Reprinted with permission.

    Comments (20)

    Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

    I am a 40 year old female I was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor when I was 30. I have seizures and they are really scary. My seizures were well controlled for several years however lately they have increased due to stress. I'm no doctor or expert, however I do know that if you have seizures you should avoid as much stress as possible, don't skip eating, get plenty of rest also avoid extreme heat and stay hydrated, also don't let seizures control your life I've done that for so long. Just use common sense and read up on certain activities that you may have to have assistance. Live, Love and Laugh.
    Recently, after 4 years of recovery from a TBI my husband had a seizure while making himself something to eat in the kitchen . When I came out to talk to him he was quietly moving the food back & forth , but not responding to my questions. I called my son & also emergency services . He then threw his hands in the air and cried out and collapsed on the floor . He was turning blue and when the emergency responders came and after oxygen , he was breathing again . We went to ICU and I explained his injury of 4 years ago and also that he had a pacemaker. Emergency told us he was having a heart attach or a stroke . I told them it looked like a seizure and he was very calm and his face was not distorted . He aspirated because they put a tube down his throat and ICU doctor told me that that caused lung damage. He was desperately trying to communicate with me asking me to take the tube out , I asked them to please and they would not deciding to medicate him and tie his hands . He was showing me that the lower portion of his stomach hurt , but by putting him out he could no longer communicate which he so desperately was trying to do . I went home to get my car because he was sleeping and as I was leaving they called and asked for a permission to put a larger port for meds in his arm and said they gave him something to lower his blood pressure, which made me rush back as that was the original reason for his fall 4 years back . When I got there he was code blue and they said they could not bring his pressure up . He passed away that evening and I truly think instead of handling line a seizure they intubated him , as if he were having a heart attach , which I understand is not the best way to administer air for a patient in distress and studies show this does more harm than good . What is your opinion ? Heartbroken ❤️

    I am so sorry to hear of your loss and the lack of respect for your voice and your husbands needs. Your story hits me hard as my grandfather died in the ER despite my grandmother’s pleading not to pumped him up with a medication he was allergic too.He died instantly. Also, the knowledge that medical professionals have on TBI related seizures is so limited. I too am having difficulties with medical care after I began having seizures following a 3rd TBI. The first one caused a brain bleed, fractured skull, and coma.

    I know what you mean they try and do that to me all the time after i have a seizure they got to one time and i had to stay more then a week for all the bad it did. I dont like going in anymore!

    PHILADELPHIA PA. This sounds familiar. My hubby had a seizure in March of 2018...went to E.R. His thyroid levels were very high as was his blood pressure. I was advised that he was having a thyroid storm (only 10 % chance of survival especially at his age--60). First shift of nurses were good but the 7 PM to 7 AM shift tied him to the bed, put gloves on his hands...his reaction was to bite the gloves off, call for his kick boxer friend Butch and he removed all the electrodes and IV tube by biting them off. The nurses (not well trained) told me at first not to "help" as this was a hospital matter and then yelled at me when he untied himself, took the brakes off his hospital bed and wheeled himself toward the bathroom. I just watched...eventually the doctor came to the room after they had called Security. I told the 3 big Security Guards that this was not a security matter--I had worked a security job for 4 years. They left the room telling the nurses to do their job and honor hubby's request to be walked to the bathroom...they were lazy...I had helped the nurses get him to the bathroom on the previous problem...yes he was a fall risk but tying someone down who is BLIND and has experienced a lot of other trauma shouldn't be treated this way. He almost died. I have advocated since then for appropriate treatment. We were lucky to have a few doctors step in to stop this nonsense. I am angered to hear what happened to your hubby. HOPE YOU SUE THEM !

    Maybe ask your doctor about anticonvulsants. One that worked for me is Fosphenytoin.

    After repeated concussions due to car accidents, I developed unpredictable seizures that seem to come on when I was under extreme emotional stress. Although I was taking a high dose of Topomax, this did not stop the seizures. Though rare, they still occured. Once, I had one when I was testifying in Court. I began to shake all over and I had no control any of my movements. I could not speak or communicate with anyone. I don't even know how long this went on.

    This was not recognized as a seizure by even my own family members because I did not fall down or pass out. When I regained control, I asked for water, and everything went on as though nothing had happend. But I was completely drained and exhausted. I probably should have gone to the hospital. My family later told me they saw that I was shaking, but they thought it was a panick attack.

    A friend of mine got a PET scan of her brain from her neurologist, to confirm the findings. Her insurance covered the cost for this testing. They insert a clear liquid in your right hand through an IV, but the results are read according to the color. If they find an area that is red it tells you this is where your problems are occurring in your brain. This testing was started in John Hopkins and now in other hospitals as well. Some doctors use this new testing to find if the patient has cancer or other neurological problems like dementia/epilepsy. I met a patient she started to have seizures now in her late 20's. I asked, and she had a head injury on the right side of her brain from a baseball, when she was 9 yrs old. Well there is your answer, because any neurological issue can develop anytime of your life. Since it was on her right temporal lobe she developed complex partial seizures and not that severe like those who have the tonic clinic seizures.

    I just had my first seizure a few days ago. I set up a doctors apt. I cannot remember what happened during the seizure. I lost 40 minutes all together. I do recall what I was doing right before however. I felt dreamy, the lights in the room where glowing bright in my eye lids with my eyes closed. And a rainbow glare was over everything with my eyes open. Then I heard a large roar as a black blob consumed my vision. I felt like I was rolling forward. Then blank! My friend said I was moving my mouth up and down bobbing my head a few min. With my eyes wide open. Then I laid down and went to sleep. I kept saying," It's ok. I am ok now. I'm just tired. Leave me alone." I remember none of it. I have not had head trauma recently, but I did bump my head a few times when I was little. I was sent to the hospital by ambulance when this seizure occurred, no one knew what was going on. I was checked for brain infections, tumors, and everything else. But found nothing. I will be visiting the neurologist soon to be tested for epilepsy. I just don't know how I got it! If I do have it. What is going on?😦

    I got my TBI in 1999. I was in auto/pedestrian accident, of course I was then pedestrian. I had flight for life, life support, and lived at craig for awhile. I had seizures for the first couple years but they were absentees I believe they were called. They stopped and I think in the last couple years I'm having them again. I'm not sure if that's possible. I have had I think 5 concussions in the last 3 years. I don't know if that's why or maybe I'm crazy?

    I too had an accident when I was six. The hoof of our horse at the time hit the back of my head. However, I did not have seizures due to that until I was twenty-eight years. I lost my license forever from a car accident where I was also pronounced dead and in a coma for 8 days. It's been hard but I've gotten through it. For last 5 years I take a medicine that gives no seizures at all. Sorry about your losses and happiness and your survivals. Thanks for your story and listening to mine. CCL, Huntington Beach, CA

    my mum and I were hit by a car. We were both badly hurt from this horrible incident. Mum was pregnant and lost her twins, and I was pronounced dead in the ambulance where my older brother who was 11 at the time was, my brother witnessed this. So with mum and me both hurt, and me pronounced dead, things were touch and go. By the way, I don't remember much.So once we arrived at the Royal Children's Hospital, they put me on life support and took great care of me. I was in a coma and life support for 3 weeks, and the person I saw by my side when I came too was my mum. So since I was 6 years old I've lived with Epilepsy. I'll be honest, there are some days where I go, I don't want to go on anymore, but I need to prove to everyone I'm here for a reason. Without my family's support and the support from the Hospital and others I would died. After leaving the hospital my brother order Dr. Lawson product and I do not experience seizure anymore So if you are in the same situation as me, believe me, I know it's hard and someday you feel like giving up, but you've got to prove to the haters and the positive people around you that you can get through anything life throws at you. 

    Thank you for reading my story.

    What exactly is this Dr. Lawson Product? I had a motorcycle accident awhile back and I’m suffering from a traumatic brain. I had a stroke because of the accident. I don’t know how many seizures I’ve had, but the last one was 5/18/18. I’ve heard I’m epileptic, but I’ve only for sure have just had two seizures. I used to be a commercial pilot and miss it a ton. Thank you!

    Hi, I want to thank you so much for sharing your story. I looked up the product you mentioned and tried the supplement. I haven't tried it for long, however, I am really feeling improved and thank you for your thoughtfulness. I send prayers to you and your family for what you've been through and wish you all the best!

    I've been told my full brain covered in scar tissue had seizure month ago may have had more but still trying to understand as life come to a stand still say i have epilepsy. I serious head injury ten yr ago and give it good whack 5 year before then.

    First thing to try: high fat ketogenic diet. They've been used for over 100 years to treat seizures and they help heal the brain and increase brain function. Why no mention of this well documented and researched scientific truth?

    It help reduce the amount of meds you have to take. A good book is ‘Treating seizures Naturally’ by Patricia Murray, Also I have subscribed for blog written by health experts where all epilepsy treatment tips along with precautions details and there is loads of info online if you are willing to search in areas you might not have searched before. I don’t condone going against your docs instructions, I have made my own decision in order to feel some hope and control around life and my illness.I would take more but can’t afford them, a lot are found in spirulina though.

    Can you please tell me where to find these?

    A important consideration to remember for anything related to TBI is that your "doctor" or "medical professional" are doing you a major disservice if they portray their opinions as any more that that, opinions. The threat from malpractice lawsuits unfortunately has driven US medical "care" into being as much about a "CYA" exercise as one that if focused on a concern for the quality of life of the TBI patient! Remember, if there's an option involved, make the effort and get a second or third opinion, because anti-seizure medication can become a "vegetative state" life-sentance for the TBI patient, while the doctor or medical professional can hide behind a "textbook treatment" regime! Make sure you know what's opinion and what's science with regard to any TBI treatment!

    I have a TBI but I’m recovering a little bit every day thankfully. What’s considered an opinion rather than truth?