New Patient Resources
What is epilepsy/seizure disorder?
The brain contains billions of nerve cells called neurons that communicate electronically and signal to each other. A seizure occurs when there is a sudden and brief excess surge of electrical activity in the brain between nerve cells. This can cause abnormal movements, change in behavior, or loss of consciousness.
Seizures are not a mental health disorder. Instead, epilepsy is a neurological condition that is still not completely understood.
Having a single seizure does not mean that a child has epilepsy. A child has epilepsy when he or she has two or more seizures without a clear cause, such as fever, head injury, drug or alcohol use, or a virus (such as encephalitis or meningitis). About three million Americans have epilepsy. Of the 200,000 new cases that develop each year, up to 50% are children and adolescents. About 300,000 children under the age of 14 in the United States have this condition. It develops in children of all ages and can affect them in different ways.
Different kinds of epilepsy/seizure disorders
There are many kinds of epilepsy and seizures. They each cause different behaviors and they each need different treatments. Identifying the type (or types) of seizures will help your child’s doctor suggest treatment options.
In a generalized seizure, the abnormal electrical activity affects the entire brain. These seizures produce muscle twitches, convulsions and loss of consciousness. People with this type of epilepsy do not remember having a seizure.
This type of seizure involves only part of the brain. Sometimes a partial seizure can spread to involve the whole brain. This is known as a partial seizure that secondarily generalizes.
Your doctor will ask a lot of questions when trying to diagnose epilepsy and determine the type(s) of seizures your child is having. The diagnosis is based on several exams and tests, in addition to an interview about your child’s condition. The facts you provide the doctor are very important in diagnosing your child’s epilepsy and deciding on treatment.
Causes of epilepsy/seizure disorder
Many parents wonder if they have somehow caused their child’s epilepsy. They search for a way to understand why this is happening to their child. But it is unlikely that a parent or anyone did anything to cause the epilepsy.
Finding the cause of epilepsy is difficult. For seven out of ten children with epilepsy, there is no known cause. These children are said to have idiopathic epilepsy. “I diopathic” means “of unknown cause.”
However, there are many known causes. Understanding and identifying the causes help to diagnose the type(s). of epilepsy. Possible causes include the following:
- Problems with brain development before birth
- Lack of oxygen during or following birth
- A serious head injury that leaves a scar in the brain
- Unusual structures in the brain
- A prolonged seizure with fever
- The after-effects of severe brain infections, such as meningitis or encephalitis
- Genetic factors
Some people report very specific triggers or immediate causes that can bring about a seizure. Children with epilepsy are more likely to have a seizure (have a lower seizure threshold) when they have a cold, the flu, or other common illnesses. Some common seizure triggers include the following:
- Forgetting/unable to take medication
- Not enough sleep
- Food allergies
- Flashing lights (e.g., from video games, strobe lights)
- Illicit drugs
- Poor diet
Childhood epilepsy is usually treated with medications that prevent seizures. If the medications do not work or if the child has too many side effects, there are other treatment options. These include surgery, the ketogenic diet, or vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) . Other treatment therapies are being tested, but have not yet been FDA approved.
(Content taken from ILAE's Epilepsy and Seizure Disorders: A Resource Guide for Parents. Works Cited and original content can be found here.)