Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that produces unprovoked and recurrent seizures — abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Epilepsy can happen to anyone, but it’s most commonly found in young children and older adults, with about three million adults in the US and 470,000 children affected.
Epilepsy isn’t curable at this time, but it is treatable, and children can grow up to lead normal lives if they learn to manage the seizures. Some children may even outgrow it.
At Memphis Neurology, our expert team of neurologists offers epilepsy diagnosis and treatment for both children and adults at our offices in Southaven, Mississippi, and Germantown, Tennessee. As the signs of epilepsy in children differ somewhat from adults, the team wants you to know what to look out for so you’ll know when to get medical help.
Main classes of seizures
There are two main classes of seizure, which differ because of which part and how much of the brain is affected and what happens during the seizure.
1. Focal (partial) seizures
The abnormal electrical brain activity occurs in one or more areas of the brain, but only on one side. Your child may have an aura prior to the seizure that involves feelings, such as deja vu, impending doom, fear, or euphoria; or sensory disturbances. The two types of focal seizures are:
Simple focal seizure
Symptoms depend on which specific area of the brain is affected. For example, if the abnormal function affects the occipital lobe, which controls vision, your child’s sight may be altered. More commonly, though, muscles are affected. The seizure is contained within a single muscle group, such as the fingers, or larger muscles in the arms and legs. They won’t lose consciousness with this type of seizure.
Complex focal seizure
This seizure type often occurs in the temporal lobe, the region of the brain that controls emotion and memory. Your child will probably lose consciousness, though this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pass out. They may look awake but display unusual behaviors, such as lip smacking, gagging, screaming, crying, or laughing. They may become tired or sleepy after the seizure (postictal state).
2. Generalized seizure
A generalized seizure occurs in both sides of the brain. Your child will lose consciousness and experience a postictal state. Types of generalized seizures include:
- Absence seizure (petit mal): brief, changed state of consciousness and staring that lasts 30 seconds or less but may occur many times per day; almost always starts between 4-12 years
- Atonic seizure (drop attack): sudden loss of muscle tone leads to falling or drooping of head; child will be limp and unresponsive
- Generalized tonic-clonic seizure (grand mal): flexion, contraction, and tremor in the muscles followed by possible vision or speech problems, fatigue, and body aches
- Myoclonic seizure: quick movements or sudden muscle group jerking occurring in clusters
It’s not always easy to recognize a seizure, because not all include convulsions or unusual muscle movements. It may seem the child is simply daydreaming, and the episode is over in under a minute. And it’s important to note that, even if a child is having seizures, it might not be epilepsy. High fevers and some illnesses can also lead to seizures, so getting an accurate diagnosis is important. Left untreated, epileptic seizures can be dangerous and impact a child's growth and education.
Little-known signs of epilepsy in kids
Parents, teachers and any adults caring for children should know the signs of epilepsy in kids. While many are normal childhood behaviors, if they happen often and seem unusual, it's worth mentioning to a doctor.
- Short attention blackouts, “deer-in-headlights” behavior, memory gaps
- Mumbling or no response to verbal questions
- Sudden falls, frequent stumbling, or unusual clumsiness
- Repeated, unusual movements, like head nodding or rapid blinking
- Sudden stomach pain followed by confusion and sleepiness
- Unusual sleepiness and irritability when woken up
- Frequent complaints that things sound, look, taste, smell, or feel "funny"
- Sudden, repeated fear or anger
- Clusters of “jackknife” movements by babies who are seated
- Clusters of grabbing movements with both arms by babies lying on their backs
Remember, infants and very young children can’t vocalize what they’re experiencing, so it’s up to you to connect the dots and inform the doctor about what’s going on.
If you suspect your child is displaying signs of epilepsy, or if you have a family history of epilepsy, it’s time to come into Memphis Neurology for an evaluation with one of our neurologists. Call us at either location, or book online.