Difference between strokes and seizures

For a time this weekend, family members of Senator Kennedy feared he might have suffered a stroke, as his father had in the 1960s. According to UCSF neurology professor Wade Smith, a stroke can often be confused with a seizure.

"A person just stops moving, the face droops or a hand becomes weak for a moment. It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between them," says Smith.

Although strokes and seizures have similar symptoms, their causes are dramatically different. Strokes are typically triggered by blocked blood vessels. The brain tissue, starved for blood, shuts down. But Dr. Smith describes a seizure as more of an electrical malfunction in the brain, which disrupts function in a specific area, such as the temporal lobe.

"If you have a seizure there, you can have some of these funny ones where a person is suddenly just confused for 5 to 10 minutes, and then the confusion clears up and is back to normal. Those are the ones harder to characterize,"

Although Kennedy had undergone surgery for a blocked artery in his neck, doctors still haven't released information on the cause of the seizure.

But in patients his age, the possibilities range from a neurological episode, to something as serious as cancer, or perhaps a tumor.

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