Epilepsy is characterized by electrical disturbances in the brain called seizures. During a seizure, there is abnormal excessive or synchronous neuronal activity that can cause symptoms ranging from unusual sensations and behaviors to convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness, depending on the area of the brain involved.
Young children may experience an isolated seizure, often as the result of a fever. This is not epilepsy. When a child has repeated seizures that are not associated with fever, trauma, or other temporary conditions known to cause seizures, however, the child is said to have a seizure disorder, or epilepsy. (See Pediatric Seizure Disorders for more information.)
Epilepsy affects 1 to 2 percent of the population; therefore, millions of children are affected by seizures. Epilepsy can be categorized as either focal or generalized, depending on the symptoms a patient experiences due to the site of origin of the seizure in the brain. Seizures in focal epilepsy begin in a specific area of the brain. Seizures in generalized epilepsy affect multiple sites in the brain or both sides of the brain simultaneously.
Epilepsy can also be categorized by the area of the brain where seizures begin, as in temporal lobe epilepsy, frontal lobe epilepsy, occipital lobe epilepsy, and parietal lobe epilepsy. While seizures can begin in one area of the brain based on the cause of a child’s epilepsy, if left untreated they can progress to involve multiple other areas of the brain. Seizures in children often begin early in life, and even if seizures appear mild, there is a risk of cumulative damage to a child’s developing brain over time. Seizures should therefore be treated as early as possible to prevent uncontrolled seizures from damaging the brain.
Causes of Epilepsy in Children
Epilepsy may be inherited, may be the result of abnormal development before birth, or may develop after an accident or injury. It may also be caused by an infection, a tumor, or a vascular lesion such as an arteriovenous malformation. (Find out more about the Causes of Pediatric Seizure Disorders.)
If epilepsy is associated with a focal lesion — either an isolated area of developmental abnormality, a growth in the brain, or vascular malformation — seizures may be controlled in as many as 95 percent of patients by resecting that lesion. This success rate, however, depends on the duration of seizures and if the seizures have therefore had time to generalize and spread beyond the initial site of origin. Epilepsy caused by more complex developmental abnormalities in the brain, often found in children, can be controlled in approximately 40 to 60 percent of patients, depending on the ability to precisely locate the abnormal area in the brain and the safety of removing it (see Surgery for Epilepsy).
Reviewed by: Caitlin Hoffman, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: January 2021
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI