Epilepsy: Misdiagnosed as Other Conditions

woman_holding_headPeople living with epilepsy—also called seizure disorder—may find the condition has a serious impact on their daily lives and ability to hold down a job. Epilepsy is caused by abnormal, excessive neuron activity in the brain and can negatively affect many mental and physical functions, including the ability to perform physical and sedentary work.

Having a seizure doesn't necessarily mean you have epilepsy, and it’s important that you’re diagnosed accurately should you experience a seizure. In a study reported on by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a misdiagnosis rate of 23 percent for epilepsy was found, and 26 percent of patients who were referred to a neurologist with “refractory epilepsy” didn't have epilepsy at all. Proper testing is critical for ensuring a proper diagnosis, because there are many conditions that have symptoms that are similar to or mimic epilepsy.

Conditions That Have Symptoms Similar to Epilepsy

Someone must have two or more seizures to be diagnosed with epilepsy, but there are many conditions that have symptoms similar to epilepsy. Here's a brief look at some of those conditions:

  • A febrile seizure. This is a convulsion that occurs in infants and young children that may be caused by a quick rise in body temperature. It’s a common type of seizure that occurs in 1 in 25 children. The likelihood that a child with have a second febrile seizure is 25–30 percent. Febrile seizures don’t harm the child and don’t cause brain damage. 

    While the child experiences the seizure, which can last as long as 15 minutes or a few seconds, he may be unconscious, convulse, or shake. Typically, a febrile seizure lasts between one and two minutes.
  • A brain injury. After a traumatic brain injury (TBI), people can suffer a seizure a few days or a few weeks after the injury. If a seizure occurs in the first week after a TBI, it’s considered an “early post-traumatic seizure.” Approximately 25 percent of those who have this type of seizure will have another one later in life. If a person has a seizure more than seven days after a TBI, it’s considered a “late post-traumatic seizure.” Approximately 80 percent of people who experience a late post-traumatic seizure will have another.

    Knowing the cause of your injury can help your doctor determine whether or not you’re likely to have seizures. For example, 20 percent of people who experience a closed head injury with bleeding between the skull and the brain are likely to have a seizure. Over half of those who suffer a TBI due to a bullet wound will have a seizure. And someone who has two or more brain surgeries following a TBI will likely suffer late post-traumatic seizures. Additionally, the symptoms of a brain infection or a tumor can be misdiagnosed as epilepsy.
  • A migraine. There is a comorbid relationship between migraines and epilepsy because they both are “characterized by neurologic dysfunction.” Patients with epilepsy are twice as likely to experience migraine headaches, and this can lead to a misdiagnosis. 

    Migraines and seizures share similar traits. For example, both can be triggered by alcohol, fatigue, and/or stress. And the aura that many patients experience before a migraine is similar to the aura that occurs before a seizure. Additionally, an electroencephalogram (EEG) that looks at brain activity often shows similar abnormalities during a seizure and a migraine.
  • Movement disorders. Conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome or other uncontrolled movement disorders can sometimes be diagnosed as a partial seizure. Symptoms may include head jerks and brief, repetitive movements such as eye blinking. These movements may come on suddenly, get worse, and then resolve on their own. Most children who experience movement disorders aren't unconscious during the episode and know that they’re speaking or moving in an uncontrolled way. Additionally, both children and adults can have involuntary muscular contractions as they’re falling asleep. But these are not seizures.


A doctor’s misdiagnosis of epilepsy can cause serious issues. A person diagnosed with this condition may have restrictions placed on leisure activities such as driving. Society may exhibit prejudices about a person’s intelligence level, and it may be more difficult for him to find employment.

Additionally, the person may be placed on anticonvulsant drugs unnecessarily, and these drugs are known to have negative side effects. Without an accurate diagnosis, the patient is being treated for a condition he doesn’t have.

We Can Help

If you’re an adult with epilepsy, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. This condition is evaluated by the nature of the seizures, the frequency, and duration. Because epilepsy can be disabling and make it impossible to sustain gainful employment, it’s important that you enlist the help of an experienced Social Security Disability lawyer to work with you on your disability claim and step you through what can be a complicated process.

Contact us online or call us directly at 402.933.5405


Timothy J. Cuddigan
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Omaha Social Security and Veterans Disability Lawyer With Over 40 Years Experience