Are these spasms actually seizures?
May 20, 2011 3:10 AM   Subscribe

You Are Not My Neurologist: sometimes I have a strong, sudden spasm sensation in the lower back of my head. It feels like it's coming from inside my skull, as though my brain had suddenly smacked against the lower back of my head. It isn't painful, nobody else notices when it happens to me, but it's unpleasant and I want to know what is happening to me.

I'm 23 and female, never had any head injuries or other reasons to suspect I have any brain damage. I don't do any drugs or alcohol, but I've never experienced these any times I ever did in the past. I've had issues with depression and anxiety, but the brain spasm has been happening prior.

Nothing seems to precipitate these occurrences (like stress or making some sort of motion), though I don't think I've had them while lying down. I'm always doing normal activities until I feel it: "Ugh, that thing is happening again." The whole thing lasts maybe two seconds, and then everything is fine like nothing happened. It happens a few times per year.

From early on, my father didn't think was anything more than my imagination and/or being a dramatic child. When I was a teenager, I was convinced I was having an aneurysm until I realized that I'd probably be dead by now if that were true.

It never dawned on me that these could be seizures because I thought all seizures involved convulsing while unconscious on the floor. After reading about them, I'm beginning to wonder if these are in fact simple partial temporal lobe seizures.

I also experience deja-vu at least once or twice per month. I've never considered it weird because I've experienced that since childhood, as well, and have been told it's normal—it's simply deja-vu. However, simple partial temporal lobe seizures can manifest as deja-vu, which makes me wonder if the deja-vu and brain spasm are actually related to each other, and seizures.

I last experienced deja-vu while sitting in a car this Sunday or last Sunday. I can't remember exactly when I last had the brain spasm thing but it was within the past few months while I was either sitting or standing in my bedroom. These are all normal to me, so I don't remember them over the long-term.

If they are seizures, that leads me to wonder about some things I experienced in mid-2007 and early-2008 but had always chalked up to being an anxiety-induced migraine "aura" without headache and anxiety-induced vertigo. I was working a stressful job and had other things going on when I had something resembling a migraine "aura" in mid-2007 and when I had strong vertigo and nausea for a few evenings during early-2008.

I am probably going to see a neurologist about this, but I just can't shake the feeling that I'm a huge hypochondriac for thinking I have epilepsy. I am scared that I'm making a big deal out of nothing and going crazy because nobody has told me otherwise. Does anybody have experience with any of this?
posted by autoclavicle to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hi there. I've experienced something similar (though I'm not sure I locate it in a particular part of my head). And I've also occasionally had the headache-less migraine aura you described, though didn't consider a connection. When I looked for information online I found on this page a discussion of 'brain zaps' (also wiki link), though I'm not convinced it's the same thing. On that page they also suggest partial seizures as a potential explanation.

It's interesting that you also mentioned depression and anxiety, as well as stress. If brain zaps get caused when people come off SSRIs it seems plausible to me that there's a connection with the emotional system, and the neurotransmitters involved in regulating that.

At any rate, if this is a long term thing with you, then it sounds just like an idiosyncrasy of your neural set-up rather than anything that needs special treatment. Even if you had some kind of extremely mild epilepsy, there is unlikely to be any form of treatment that isn't worse than the thing itself. So they would probably avoid doing anything unless it was interfering with your life somehow, or definitely getting worse. Still I wouldn't want to stop you going to a neurologist to get yourself checked out, and would be interested to hear what they have to say about your case.
posted by leibniz at 4:09 AM on May 20, 2011

When I was in my mid 20s, I went through a period of several months when something weird happened in my head. I can only describe it as sudden loss of balance or almost fainting. It would come on suddently and last just about 2 seconds. It wasn't related to blood sugar, hunger, exercise or standing up too quickly or anything like that. I never lost consciousness or fell, except for the first time, when I was sitting at a desk and the sensation made me think that the building was collapsing, causing me to over-compensate by bracing hard against my desk and chair (and giving myself the biggest bruise I've ever seen). At first it happened once a week, but over the course of a few months it started happening more frequently, and I finally went to the ER when it happened twice in one day. After and EKG, a CAT scan, blood sugar checks, probably other tests I can't remember, and a visit to a neurologist, I had no diagnosis. Like yours, it would happen during normal activities, and I had the same reaction (ugh, that head thing again). It continued for a few more weeks and eventually it went away as mysteriously as it arrived. That was 10 years ago and I don't worry about it at all. Obviously, this isn't medical advice, just another person who had an annoying head thing.
posted by ellenaim at 4:13 AM on May 20, 2011

leibniz- it's interesting that you mentioned the brain zaps because I've had those when going off SSRIs, but never thought they could be the same type of thing! (It's also freaky that someone would experience that without SSRI withdrawal, they felt much worse than the brain spasm.) I never felt those zaps in a specific spot, either. They seemed more encompassing, like fuzzy electrical hisses versus the brain spasm that seemed like a sudden, sharp impact. It seems like there's not much treatment for partial seizures. Even if I were having them I'm not sure what good a diagnosis would do, other than make me worry that I'll have a worse kind of seizure in the future. Oh well.
posted by autoclavicle at 4:54 AM on May 20, 2011

Even if you are a hypochondriac, that shouldn't stop you from visiting a doctor. See a doctor.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:01 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

It could very well be a tumor pressing up against your brain stem. The brain doesn't have any nerve endings so you wouldn't actually feel the brain sloshing up against your skull.
posted by TheBones at 6:45 AM on May 20, 2011

Also, for years and years my husband has mentioned that he gets a strange feeling in the back of his head that feels and sounds to him like his brain is draining, and lasts just a second or two. For years I told him he should at least mention this to a doctor. Until one day I heard it too. I asked if his "brain had just drained" and he said it had. He had felt and heard it in the back of his head, but I heard the sound coming from his stomach. It was just the regular hungry stomach liquidy gurgle sound. It's kind of like the plumbing in your house; flush the toilet upstairs and you can hear it in the pipes in the kitchen - you can't really tell where it's coming from!
posted by ellenaim at 6:55 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey. I've experienced this, not much in the past five years, but every month or two from when I was a teenager. Sometimes they were quite strong and I thought to be concerned. However, there were never any other related symptoms or consequences and now the experience is rare. It's probably nothing but there's no harm in making sure.
posted by bigZLiLk at 7:25 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need to see a neurologist and get an MRI of the brain and cervical spine. In my experience, I've noticed that a lot of people with neuro issues only get MRIs of their brain; to diagnose what I have, it's necessary to see C1-C4 to diagnose it. So make sure you ask the doctor what's getting scanned and to please include your neck before they issue tests.

What you have could be seizures, could be migraines, could be all kinds of things. Could be no big deal, could be life threatening. You have to go to a doctor.

When my Chiari started being symptomatic (early teens), I had horrible pinching sensations at my brain stem. I told my parents for years that something was w-r-o-n-g with me, but my mom kept dismissing it as the migraines that everyone in her family started getting around puberty. Well, it wasn't migraines, number one, and number two, migraines are worth going to a neurologist for, too! Anyway, it took me two years of agony before I finally got to go to a neurologist to find some answers.

You have to advocate for yourself and your health. It sounds to me like you have absolutely every reason to be concerned enough to see a neurologist; you don't sound like a hypochondriac at all.

Good luck! I hope everything is fine.
posted by phunniemee at 8:17 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to get these when I was a kid, particularly if I'd been throwing a ball overarm. It'd be a kind of 'thunk' sensation, usually just to one side of the back of my head/nape of the neck, and it'd last for a second or two.

I've had maybe one or two of these in my adult life. I think they're something muscular rather than neurological.
posted by essexjan at 9:04 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had this sort of thing, too -- both the deja vu and the sudden spasms (though mine are painful, if brief). I have no history of anything neurological, though I do take antidepressants.

The deja vu was VERY weird to me. I tried to explain it and some people thought they could be panic attacks. It felt different, although I did experience some sort of brief panic at times. Certain images or words seemed to reoccur or give me that same feeling of distinct unease, and I could FEEL it in my body and brain. I had had them maybe a couple of times at one point in high school, and then I had several of them -- including a few days when I had two or three each day, in varying intensity -- when I was 28.

At that time, I had just switched antidepressants from Effexor to Celexa. I didn't feel like there were other issues with the switch, and my doctor thought that I shouldn't be experiencing withdrawal from the Effexor. I ended up going in for a sleep-deprived EEG (not scary at all, although staying up was annoying) and the doctor saw something which might be construed as abnormal, although he didn't think there was anything major. Then I had an MRI, which was also annoying (the noise is awful) but also not particularly scary. The results didn't show anything. I switched back to Effexor a few months later for other reasons, and I haven't had any episodes since.

The spasm always happens in a similar place to where you describe. If you're looking at the back of my head, it's just above ear level and maybe a couple inches to the left of center. I have no warning; it just comes on and sort of stabs me, bad enough so I sometimes make a noise. But it's only a few seconds long. (Oddly enough, as I type this the spot is throbbing very faintly.)

Given the neuro exam that I had at that time, and the tabs I keep with my psychiatrist, I don't really worry about this. I should clarify, too, that these are different from the "brain zaps" (which I typically get if I forget a dose of Effexor). Those are not painful, just sort of a surge.

Do go get checked out, but if your doctors don't see anything particularly worrisome (and you don't feel like you need a second opinion), you're probably fine.
posted by Madamina at 9:11 AM on May 20, 2011

Nthing going to the doctor.
When I was withdrawing from SSRIs I had similar "zaps" as well.
Thankfully they went away after a few months.
best of luck, and see a doctor.
posted by handbanana at 9:46 AM on May 20, 2011

Purely anecdotal: my wife had somewhat similar (and very brief) episodes of aphasia for approx. 8 or 10 years -- they would be infrequent, and last anywhere from a couple of second to perhaps 20 seconds or so. She meant to see a neurologist about them but it did not seem like an urgent thing as these episodes always passed after a few seconds. Then one day she had one of these that didn't end quickly, and instead was followed by a full blown, status epilepticus seizure. She was rushed to the hospital, and the following several days were a blur of worry and fear. In her case the root cause turned out to be a congenital brain lesion (Arteriovenous malformation, or AVM) that required surgery to fix. Thankfully, this was several years ago and she's had no reoccurrence of the aphasia or additional seizures. The MRI revealed that she had two of these congenital malformations, one that was dormant and needs to be monitored every 12 months for change, and the other that was irritated and had caused the aphasia and seizure.

Bottom line: you don't know what it causing this condition, and only a neurologist is going to be able to determine the root cause. It could be nothing, or it could be something, but you should take this seriously and get it checked out. Take care of yourself.
posted by mosk at 11:46 AM on May 20, 2011

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