Epilepsy in Children

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition involving the brain that makes people more susceptible to having seizures. When a person has two or more seizures on separate days, they are considered to have epilepsy.It is one of the most common disorders of the nervous system and affects people of all ages, ancestry and ethnic background. More than 2.7 million Americans live with epilepsy.

Pediatric epilepsy affects one to two percent of children worldwide. Many children outgrow their epilepsy before or during adolescence, seizures go away and treatments can be successfully reduced and stopped.

Symptoms of epilepsy

The hallmark of epilepsy is recurrent seizures (2 or more on separate days) not caused by fever or by a transient medical illness. Diagnosis and classifying epilepsy starts with understanding the type or types of seizures the child experiences.

Causes of epilepsy

There are many possible causes of epilepsy, including structural brain changes (from injury, infection or developmental brain differences), genetic differences, rarely brain tumors, and very rarely immune problems. In many cases, however, there is no detectable cause for epilepsy.  While not establishing a cause can be frustrating for families, prognosis is often favorable for children with no established cause.  And finding an effective treatment does not depend on finding the underlying cause.

A child may experience one or many seizures. While the exact cause of the seizure is often not known, the more common seizures are caused by the following:

In newborns and infants:

  • Congenital (present at birth) problems
  • Brain infection
  • Stroke

In children, adolescents, and young adults:

  • Trauma to the head
  • Infection
  • Congenital conditions
  • Genetic factors
  • Unknown reasons

Other possible causes of seizures may include:

  • Brain tumor
  • Neurological problems
  • Drug withdrawal
  • Medications

Testing and diagnosis of epilepsy

At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Pediatric Epilepsy Program, your child’s care begins with a comprehensive, personalized assessment of their medical history, seizure types, and the cause of their epilepsy.

The diagnosis of a seizure is made with a physical examination and diagnostic tests. During the examination, your child's medical team obtains a complete medical history and asks when the seizures occurred.

Diagnostic tests may include:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the electrical activity in the brain and identify the source of seizures
    • Most children experiencing seizures will undergo a routine EEG that typically lasts 30 to 60 minutes.
    • For some children, longer EEG recordings are required. Using continuous 24/7 EEG recording, our epilepsy specialists can help manage acute seizures and identify how many seizures a child is having. EEG also helps us to identify children who may be candidates for epilepsy surgery.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Genetic tests may help us better understand each patient and their type of epilepsy
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG)
  • Stereoelectroencephalography (sEEG or stereo-EEG), a minimally invasive procedure where electrodes are placed directly in the brain to identify where seizures start
  • Rarely - Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to determine if there is an infection or other problems

Seizures are sometimes related to other neurological problems and require further medical follow up.

Epilepsy treatment

The goal of seizure management is to stop seizures without interfering with the child's normal growth and development, and with as few treatment-related side effects as possible.

The major goals of seizure management include:

  • Proper identification of the type of seizure
  • Using medication specific to the type of seizure
  • Using the least amount of medication to achieve adequate control
  • Maintaining optimal medication doses

Treatments for your child's seizures may include:

  • Medications: There are many types of medications used to treat seizures and epilepsy. Medications are selected based on the type of seizure, age of the child, side effects, the cost of the medication, and the adherence with the use of the medication.
  • Ketogenic diet: Certain children who are having problems with medications, or whose seizures are not being well controlled, may be placed on a special diet called the ketogenic diet. This type of diet is low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fat.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS): Some children, whose seizures are not being well-controlled with seizure medications, may benefit from a procedure called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).
  • Surgery: Surgery for epilepsy is performed by a specialized surgical team. The operation may remove the part of the brain where the seizures are occurring, or, sometimes, the surgery helps to stop the spread of seizures through the brain. If your child may benefit from epilepsy surgery, you will first have a detailed epilepsy surgery evaluation in order to determine if all the seizures are coming from a location that is safe to remove. We use modern minimally invasive technologies to develop a personalized epilepsy surgery plan for each child to optimize seizure control and minimize pain.
  • Responsive NeuroStimulation (RNS): This device is implanted under the scalp to monitor brain activity. It uses mild electrical pulses to prevent or shorten detected seizures.
  • Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS): This battery-powered stimulator is implanted in the chest or abdomen and connected to thin wires in the brain to deliver electrical pulses that reduce uncontrolled muscle contractions (dystonia).

After a comprehensive evaluation and careful diagnosis, we will work with your family to develop a personalized seizure management plan, using both anti-seizure medications and other therapies, which may include epilepsy surgery for some patients.

Specific treatment for seizures will be determined based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the condition
  • Type of seizure
  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Your opinion or preference

If your child’s care is managed at a hospital or doctor’s office closer to your home, we will collaborate with local providers to ensure coordinated care and the best possible seizure management for your child.

Epilepsy research

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is actively engaged in epilepsy genetics and translational therapeutics research. New advances have led to the identification of specific genes that cause seizures, allowing us to more effectively target therapies and provide more personalized epilepsy care.

Reviewed by Dennis Dlugos, MD, MSCE


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