Seizures and Epilepsy

Healthcare provider talking to girl and woman.Seizures are sudden, uncontrollable events that occur when the brain sends out abnormal electrical signals to the body. There are many reasons why people have seizures. When a child has seizures repeatedly, he or she is considered to have epilepsy. Usually, this condition can be partially or completely controlled. With proper treatment, epilepsy won’t stop your child from enjoying life.

Why do people develop epilepsy?

Most cases of epilepsy start in childhood. Many children who are diagnosed with epilepsy continue to have seizures into adulthood. Often, doctors can’t explain why a child has epilepsy. Certain factors, such as head injury, brain infection, stroke, or tumors can raise a child’s risk for getting epilepsy. Seizure disorders like epilepsy may run in families. More and more people are being diagnosed with genetic causes for epilepsy as genetic testing becomes more widely available. 

What are seizures?

Seizures are caused by problems with the electrical signals in the brain. Common symptoms include:

  • Convulsions (muscle jerking) involving either part of the body or the whole body

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Sudden stiffening of the body

  • Loss of bladder control

  • Repetitive movements, such as chewing, lip smacking, or clapping

  • Short periods of memory loss or confusion

  • Periods of blank staring or blinking (with loss of awareness)

  • Unresponsiveness to questions or instructions

A child may feel sudden fear, anger, or panic before a seizure. He or she may notice changes in the way things look, sound, smell, or feel before the seizure. These are referred to as auras and are actually the earliest part of a seizure. After the seizure is over, the child is often weak or confused. Sometimes children will sleep for a prolonged period of time after a seizure. This is referred to as the postictal period.

Diagnosing epilepsy

A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. If your child has seizures, a neurologist will evaluate him or her to see if a cause can be found. You’ll be asked questions about your child’s health and the history of the seizures. An EEG (electroencephalogram) is often done. This is a test that records brain activity. Other tests may also be done, including an MRI or a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). In some cases, the doctor may order genetic testing.  

Treating epilepsy

Your doctor will discuss with you the best way to control your child’s epilepsy. Seizures can often be controlled with medicine. Some medicines are given on a daily basis to prevent seizures. Others are prescribed to stop a seizure once it has started. In some cases, it may be hard to control the frequency of your child's seizures. In such cases, doctors may suggest a special diet called the ketogenic diet. There is also a magnetic device that can be implanted underneath the skin in your child's chest. This device stimulates the vagus nerve in an effort to end the seizure. For some children, surgery may be an option. Many children stop having seizures as they get older. Even those who continue to have seizures can live normal and happy lives.