Signs and Symptoms of Epilepsy in Children
When we hear the word epilepsy, we usually automatically think about seizures with strong convulsions and unconsciousness. In reality, the signs that a child has epilepsy can be difficult to spot, even for the most devoted parents. Seizures are also difficult to recognize when they begin in adolescence because parents may misinterpret the signs of epilepsy as a phase their child is going through, drug or alcohol abuse, or psychological problems.
Parents who suspect that their child has epilepsy need to consult a doctor immediately for a diagnosis and treatment. Seizures or other signs associated with them may also be symptoms of other medical conditions such as: traumatic brain injuries, migraines, psychological or physical illness, fever, medication, substance abuse, or a lack of oxygen.
A definition of epilepsy
Epilepsy is a medical condition characterized by seizures caused by overactive brain cells. The brain is made up of nerve cells called neurons that send tiny electrical impulses to communicate with each other. Seizures occur when a large number of cells send out electrical charges at the same time, causing the brain to be overwhelmed. Epileptic siezures involve either part or all of the brain.
The causes of epilepsy are unknown in approximately 7 out of ten cases. Scientists are currently researching possible causes such as gene mutations, but currently don’t understand how seizures affect the brain over time.
Many experts feel that seizures do not cause brain damage most of the time, but there is some disagreement among epilepsy experts as to whether seizures cause brain damage over a long period of time.
The first seizure
A child who experiences a seizure for the first time should be taken to a family doctor or an emergency department of a hospital immediately for evaluation. A child may not remember what happened during the seiure or be able describe his symptoms. Simple partial seizures can cause overwhelming feelings of terror in the child that frighten and upset him, his parents, and people around him.
Their bizarre behavior may seem inappropriate to others.The seizure is not really painful or harmful, but may put the child in danger of falling down or hitting other objects.
Signs in Babies
Signs in Young children
Signs in Adolescents
"Jackknife"-like movements when babies are sitting
Unusual clumsiness and frequent stumbling, sudden, unexplained falls
Appearing out of it and dazed
Short periods of both arms making grabbing movements when babies are lying on their backs
Feeling sudden stomach pain and is confused, unusually sleepy and irritable when wakened
Staring blankly and then mumbling, making random movements, chewing, or picking at clothes=S
Short times of staring into space like they were daydreaming at inappropriate times, such as in the middle of a conversation
Parts of the body jerking, especially early in the morning
Unresponsiveness for brief periods and generally seems dazed
Sudden unexplained anxiety or anger
Nodding, rapidly blinking repeatedly, or other repetitive movements that seem unnatural
Sensory changes such as saying things feel, sound, smell or look different or strange
Complaining that things taste, smell, feel, sound or look funny
Unexplainable anxiety attacks
Short periods when they are not able to talk normally
The need for an Immediate medical exam
Children benefit from early diagnosis and receiving treatment as soon as possible. Many general doctors and internists are able to treat epilepsy. If seizures are severe or there are questions about which medications are appropriate, a neurologist specializing in seizures may need to be consulted.
Parents can help doctors to make a correct diagnosis and prescribe the appropriate medication by keeping track of the following:
- The time of day the seizure happened
- Writing down details of the child’s activities before the seizure
- Describing the child’s physical condition during the day, such as being tired, stressed or ill
- Noting the warning signs that the child felt before the seizure
- Describing the nature of movements of the body, if any, and on what body parts the movements were located
- Describing the sounds she made, if any
- Timing how many seconds or minutes the seizure lasted
- Explaining how the child felt after the seizure such as tiredness, soreness or confusion, and whether she was able to talk
Sometimes, siblings, family members or teachers may spot signs of epilepsy and provide information to parents that they can discuss with their doctor. Parents can also videotape their child’s seizure, which can be very helpful to doctors while they are analyzing the symptoms to formulate a diagnosis and treatment plan.
A doctor will do a physical exam and order blood tests. The physician may also order an EEG to examine the electrical activity in the child’s brain or a brain scan using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Seizures that occur after the first episode generally follow a pattern that is unique to the individual with epilepsy. After the child is diagnosed. a siezure will not usually require a trip to the emergency department. Exceptions are when the seizure is different from the child's normal pattern such as being longer in duration, followed by a second seizure, or having a longer recovery time than usual.
What to do during a seizure
- Keep calm and don’t panic
- Reassure the child that you are there for them and that everything is OK
- Put the child in a comfortable position, which for most will be on his side, to ensure that he is able to breathe and that he will not choke on saliva during convulsions
- Do not put anything in his mouth
- Put something soft under his head to prevent injury
- Do not restrain the child – only touch the child to protect them from injury
- Let the seizure run its course, which may be a few seconds or up to five minutes
- Allow the child time to return to consciousness or recover from grogginess
Problems when epilepsy is not treated
If epilepsy in children is not treated, they may have problems later in life such as:
- difficulty paying attention
- difficulty learning in the classroom
- brief blackout periods which they may be unable to remember afterwards
- Increased safety risks when children experience siezures during activities such as riding a bicycle or swimming
- Behavior problems develop because the children are frustrated or angry about their condition
- Social interaction problems - other children may exclude them because of their symptoms or the children with epilepsy may withdraw from others
Many children recover from epilepsy as they approach adulthood, while others can lead normal, fulfilling lives with the right medication under a doctor’s supervision. Unfortunately, medical treatment does not help some forms of epilepsy. Scientists are currently actively seeking new diagnostic tools to determine the causes of epilepsy and are developing new treatments.
Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only and readers are encouraged to seek medical advise if they suspect that their child has epilepsy.
© 2013 Carola Finch