Symptomatic Generalized Epilepsy

Updated: Dec 11, 2018
  • Author: Emily Nakagawa, DO, MPH; Chief Editor: Selim R Benbadis, MD  more...
  • Print


Symptomatic generalized epilepsy (SGE) encompasses a group of challenging epilepsy syndromes. As a group, SGE has 3 main features: (1) multiple seizure types, especially generalized tonic and atonic seizures; (2) brain dysfunction other than the seizures, in the intellectual domain (mental retardation or developmental delay) and in the motor domain (cerebral palsy); and (3) EEG evidence of diffuse brain abnormality.

The following are examples of epilepsy syndromes that are included in the category of SGE:

  • Early myoclonic encephalopathy

  • Early infantine epileptic encephalopathy with suppression bursts or Ohtahara syndrome

  • West syndrome

  • Epilepsy with myoclonic atonic seizures

  • Epilepsy with myoclonic absence

  • Lennox-Gastaut syndrome

  • Progressive myoclonic epilepsies

See the following Medscape Reference epilepsy topics for more information on these conditions:



Overall, seizures are a paroxysm of high-frequency or synchronous low-frequency high-voltage electrical discharges that cause a sudden alteration in the CNS. Three conditions are involved: (1) population of pathologically excitable neurons, (2) an increase in excitatory glutaminergic activity, and (3) reduction of inhibitory GABAergic projections. [1] In symptomatic generalized epilepsy, an underlying structural or metabolic derangement is also present. EEG findings reflect age-related changes as the brain matures. [2]




Assessing the frequency of symptomatic generalized epilepsy (SGE) is difficult because the definition varies and can be more or less inclusive.

In a study by Ohtahara and Yamatogi, 12 of 16 patients with Ohtahara syndrome developed into West syndrome or infantile spasms between ages 3 and 6 months as defined by EEG findings. [3] Infantile spasms affect 1 in 2000 infants. [4] Lennox-Gastaut syndrome has an incidence of 1.9-2.1 cases per 100,000 children and accounts for 6-7% of intractable pediatric epilepsy; however, this depends of the definition used for Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.


A study of social outcomes in a Nova Scotia study found that 20 years after diagnosis of childhood-onset symptomatic generalized epilepsy (SGE), 25% die. All survivors have mental retardation and depend on parents and institutions in terms of living and finances. [5] Most patients with SGE grow up to have intractable epilepsy, with a small percentage who are seizure free with no antiepileptic drugs. [5] In a follow-up study of 14 patients with Ohtahara syndrome, 4 died early and the remaining 10 were severely handicapped. [6]


These refer to age at onset. In adulthood, most patients with symptomatic generalized epilepsy (SGE) have a less well-defined syndrome that still has the characteristics of SGE and is closest to a Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (intractable multiple seizure types, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy). Note the following progression:

  • Neonates - Early myoclonic encephalopathy, early infantine epileptic encephalopathy with suppression bursts, or Ohtahara syndrome

  • Infancy - West syndrome

  • Childhood - Epilepsy with myoclonic atonic seizures, epilepsy with myoclonic absence, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome

  • Adolescence-adults - Progressive myoclonic epilepsies