Symptoms and Treatments of Epilepsy in Children

Written by Kristeen Cherney | Published on July 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on July 10, 2014

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of the central nervous system. It causes brain signal disruptions that result in seizures. Some adults develop epilepsy from:

  • brain trauma
  • infections
  • strokes
  • brain tumors

Defining Epilepsy in Children

The symptoms of epilepsy are concerning for anyone, especially for parents of children with the brain disorder. Symptoms and treatment of epilepsy is different in children with epilepsy. Children have a higher risk of related behavioral problems from ongoing seizures. Continuous treatment is the key to managing the disorder, and children have many different options depending on their symptoms.

Epilepsy most commonly forms during childhood. The majority of cases don’t have obvious causes. These are considered idiopathic. Researchers believe that some children have genetic risk factors for the disease. If a family member has a history of the brain disorder, chances are you might too.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a person is not considered epileptic without experiencing at least two seizures. In adults, epilepsy can range from debilitating to life threatening. The condition is rarely fatal in children if it’s recognized early and treated.

Common Pediatric Symptoms

The symptoms of epilepsy are most obvious when a seizure occurs. Seizures typically occur without warning. They can last for a few seconds, and up to few minutes.

Common symptoms include:

  • breathing difficulties
  • thrashing uncontrollably
  • confusion
  • “spacing out”
  • unconsciousness

A seizure can be classified as either partial or generalized. Partial seizures only affect one part of the brain. They produce the mildest symptoms. Children may just experience momentary confusion.

Generalized seizures affect the whole brain, and the symptoms can be more severe. Any seizure that lasts for more than five minutes is considered a medical emergency.

Epileptic seizures are not only concerning for parents, but they can frighten children as they recover. Your child may experience frustration or sleepiness during the aftermath.

Benefits and Risks of Medication

Medical treatment can be a necessity in managing epileptic seizures. The NINDS estimates that medication helps 70 percent of all patients with epilepsy. But this doesn’t mean that most children benefit from epilepsy medication. Such drugs pose bigger risks for this age group — especially possible side effects.

While advances in epilepsy medication have decreased the risk for side effects, there is still a chance your child might experience:

  • excessive fatigue
  • tiredness that disrupts school and other activities
  • mood swings
  • behavioral problems

If your child experiences any of these side effects, their doctor may try another type of anti-seizure medication. According to Kids Health, less than 10 percent of children need brain surgery.

Complementary Approaches May Show Promise

Aside from medications, complementary approaches may help. Lifestyle changes can potentially reduce the number and severity of seizures.

The most common approaches include:

  • ketogenic (low in carbs, high in fat) diet
  • increased hours of sleep
  • regular exercise (with proper supervision)
  • relaxing exercises, such as yoga
  • biofeedback

Despite the promise of alternative treatments, medications continue to be the most trusted source of treatment. Children who don’t respond to a few types of medications are particularly strong candidates for complementary approaches.

Outlook for Children with Epilepsy

Epilepsy is an incurable brain disorder, but many children outgrow the seizures. According to Kids Health, two-thirds of pediatric patients end up doing so by the time they reach their teen years. The disorder also doesn’t worsen with age, but you may still need ongoing medication to prevent symptoms.

Outlook for children with epilepsy is promising, but some patients require continuous treatment. Uncontrolled seizures can lead to permanent brain damage, and even death. The risk for fatality is greater if there are a large number of seizures within a short period of time. But the majority of seizures don’t result in brain damage.

Aside from the possibility of brain damage, epilepsy poses other challenges to children. This includes:

  • depression
  • frequent emotional outbursts
  • bullying as a result of social stigmas
  • inability to achieve independence
  • poor social skills from embarrassment

It’s crucial to work with a pediatrician to help control seizures in your child. You may also consider clinical trials that help study potential causes, new tests, and potential cures.

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