Epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes repeated, unprovoked seizures, and it is more common in young children (age 1 to 5 years*) than it is in adults.
Neurons in the brain send out electrical impulses to communicate with each other and with parts of the body. These electrical impulses control everything in your body, like movements and your senses. When too many neurons send out impulses simultaneously, the brain is overloaded and a seizure occurs. It is not uncommon for a child to have one or two seizures. Children with epilepsy, however, have repeated seizures.
The Epilepsy Center at Children’s Health is a Level 4 Epilepsy Center, providing the highest level of treatment for children with epilepsy. We were the first such program in the country to be certified by the Joint Commission, the nation’s preeminent standard-setting accrediting and certifying regulatory body in healthcare. Our interdisciplinary medical team has the experience to not only comprehensively diagnose children with this condition, but we remain the area’s only center to perform the most advanced procedures and therapies for the treatment of epilepsy.
Because this condition affects your child and your family, you will be glad to know we provide care for the whole family, including education and support.
In addition, the Epilepsy Center works with referring doctors and area Emergency Departments to:
- Provide seizure safety education programs
- Expedite appointments in order to get your child evaluated quickly
Epilepsy can be a congenital (present at birth) condition, or a child can have acquired epilepsy due to brain damage that occurred sometime after birth.
Causes of acquired epilepsy include:
- Head trauma, resulting from a car accident or other traumatic injury
- Brain tumor
There are two major types of epilepsy:
- Generalized epilepsy – With this condition, seizures affect the child’s whole brain. With generalized epilepsy, a child may experience sustained rhythmic jerking of various parts of the body, muscles that become weak, muscles that tense up rigidly, staring spells or other symptoms. Epilepsy with generalized seizure can disappear as a child grows older, or it can be severe and represent a life-long condition.
- Partial (focal) epilepsy – With this condition, seizures begin in a specific portion of the brain. With partial epilepsy, the child can experience similar jerking or muscular reactions as with generalized epilepsy. A child with this condition can also experience repeated automatic movements, such as clapping or rubbing of hands, lip smacking or chewing. Partial epilepsy can also cause changes in emotions, cognition (thinking) or autonomic functions – including gastrointestinal sensations, waves of heat or cold or heart racing – depending on which part of the brain the epilepsy affects. Partial seizures may last from one to two minutes and can affect an isolated muscle group, such as fingers or legs. These seizures can happen at night and can be a benign occurrence in early childhood, which your child may outgrow
The main symptom of epilepsy is repeated seizures. There are several types of seizures that a child with epilepsy can experience:
- Absence seizures (petit mal) – With this type of seizure, the child will have a brief lapse in awareness that lasts a few seconds and causes them to stare or have twitches in the eyelids or face muscles. Absence seizures can occur up to hundreds of times each day. They usually begin before age 2 and end by adolescence (age 10 to 19 years**).
- Tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal) – With this type of seizure, the child suddenly and completely loses consciousness and the arms and legs stiffen, usually causing them to fall to the ground (tonic phase). This is followed by a rhythmic jerking (clonic) phase. Anyone who experiences tonic-clonic seizures should be immediately evaluated by a healthcare professional to prevent brain damage or death.
- Tonic seizures – This is a seizure that includes only the tonic phase of a tonic-clonic seizure (described above).
- Myoclonic seizures – With this type of seizure, a child experiences very brief, lightning-quick jerks of any part of the body without losing consciousness.
- Atonic seizures – With this type of seizure, the child experiences a sudden loss of muscle tone, which causes them to collapse into the ground – sometimes head first.
Tests and Diagnosis
To diagnose epilepsy, your doctor will do a detailed physical exam of your child, ask you about your child’s past medical history and family history, and learn as much as possible from you about how a seizure started and what you observed.
Following the exam, simple tests may be done including blood tests, kidney and liver function tests, EEG and brain imaging. These tests are designed to determine the risk of seizure reoccurrence and to pinpoint any abnormalities that would help identify an underlying neurological disease, including epilepsy.
Partial epilepsy can be benign and disappear, or it can be a life-long medical condition. The treatment for partial epilepsy depends on the underlying cause and if the seizures are deemed harmless and likely to be outgrown. Once tests are complete, your doctor may prescribe:
Anti-epileptic drugs work to control seizures. While these medications cause side effects (e.g., drowsiness, fatigue, rashes), they help someone with epilepsy lead a normal life.
If seizures happen so often that they reduce a child’s quality of life, surgery may be necessary. Surgery can implant a small device in the brain to regulate electronic brain activity and reduce seizures. This device is called a vagus nerve stimulator, and is generally approved for patients older than 12 years of age. The Epilepsy Center at Children’s Health’s epilepsy surgery program has a high rate of success, with our patient outcomes often exceeding those of other centers.
There is no one treatment method for any child with a seizure disorder. Each treatment plan is tailored to the individual child based on their diagnosis and symptoms.
What causes epilepsy?
For about 6 out of 10 people, there is no known cause for epilepsy. Otherwise, causes can include head injuries, stroke, brain tumors, infection and genetics.
What are the symptoms of a seizure?
The epilepsy symptoms most people recognize are shaking (called convulsions) combined with the body getting rigid, clenching the jaw, and biting the tongue. But some seizures are barely noticeable. Children may stare into space, stop talking abruptly and then start talking again, or start repetitious movements like chewing their lips or moving a hand. These types of seizures are called absence seizures, which used to be known as petit mal seizures. Sometimes a child may experience smelling something that isn’t there, numbness or a tingling sensations before the seizure. These are called auras.
What should I do while my child is having a seizure?
If the seizure is small twitching or staring, they should come out of it easily. For convulsions, make sure your child is in a chair that they can’t fall out of or lying on the floor with a pillow under their head. Turn their head to the side, but NEVER try to put anything into their mouth. Do not shake or hit them or shout at them. If the seizure lasts for more than five minutes or seems violent, call 9-1-1.
After a seizure, your child may be confused, foggy or tired. If they want to lie down, let them.
What kind of tests are there for epilepsy?
Doctors first need to be sure that seizure aren’t due to something else before they diagnose epilepsy. Simple blood work and/or kidney tests might find that there is an infection causing seizures, and that might be cured easily. Otherwise there are a variety of brain-related tests, including an electroencephalogram (EEG), CT scan and MRI that can show the electrical activity in the brain that indicates epilepsy.
Is epilepsy a sign of mental illness?
No, epilepsy is not a sign of mental or emotional illness. But a child with epilepsy can feel isolated, alone or depressed. That is why it is important to have a social worker or psychologist familiar with childhood epilepsy involved in treatment.
How is epilepsy treated?
There is no one specific treatment for any child with epilepsy. Each treatment plan is developed based on the child’s diagnosis and symptoms. For many children, medication can control seizures. Special diets can also help. If seizures happen so often that they reduce the child’s quality of life, surgery may be necessary. Surgery can include removing the section of brain where seizures originate or implanting a small device that regulates electronic brain activity.
What are the side effects of epilepsy treatment?
There can be side effects from treatment as well as from the disorder. Treatments can cause dizziness, fatigue and lead to balance problems. Seizure drugs can also cause bone density loss. Living with epilepsy can be stressful. A child may feel isolated, alone or depressed. Support groups and counseling can help.
Where can I find a support group?
Our Epilepsy Center will provide you with resources to help both you and your child. The Resources link on this webpage is also a good source for more information about epilepsy and support groups.
Can epilepsy be prevented?
Sometimes, epilepsy can be prevented. Pregnant women need to be careful of infections and drug and alcohol abuse. Keeping your child safe from falls, such as using a bike helmet, can help reduce the risk of trauma-induced seizures.
I have epilepsy. Can my children inherit it?
It’s possible but inherited epilepsy is very rare.
Can epileptic seizures be prevented?
One of the greatest causes of repeat seizures is falls, so make sure your child is safe. Precautions like limiting their climbing, making sure they always wear a helmet when biking, and not sleeping on the top bunk bed can help. If your child is diagnosed with epilepsy and is prescribed medication, be sure they take their medication as directed.
Can epilepsy be cured?
Sometimes surgery can remove the section of the brain that is not working properly and can cure epilepsy. Sometimes children outgrow epilepsy; 74 out of 100 children become seizure-free within two years as long as there are no underlying problems. For those who don’t outgrow epilepsy, medication can eliminate and control seizures.