Epilepsy is a neurological condition which causes recurring seizures (or fits). Seizures occur when there is sudden, abnormal electrical activity somewhere in the brain.
Epilepsy can start at any age and is the result of an underlying condition. It can be caused by structural abnormalities in the brain (where the brain doesn’t form correctly in pregnancy), genetics or a significant illness such as meningitis, encephalitis or neonatal stroke. Sometimes the reason for your child’s epilepsy will be unknown.
Around two percent of children have epilepsy however, some will outgrow the disease by the time they reach puberty.
Signs and symptoms
During a seizure, abnormal electrical activity in the brain can cause various symptoms. These may include confusion, loss of consciousness, repetitive movements or twitching, stiffness and/or jerking of limbs, or staring spells (these may appear like daydreaming). Seizures are unpredictable and may occur every day and/or several times a day.
Epilepsy can take various forms in childhood and many other conditions can mimic epileptic seizures. Some children may experience events that look like epileptic seizures and it is common for these to be misinterpreted.
If you notice anything unusual, speak to your general practitioner (GP) who will refer your child to a paediatrician and/or neurologist if required.
Call 000 when a seizure lasts longer than five minutes or sooner if you are concerned about your child.
How is it diagnosed?
Epilepsy is diagnosed by taking a full clinical history, and conducting a physical and neurological examination. The doctor may ask for information from others who saw the seizure and review any video recordings of the seizure.
Additional tests may be conducted such as an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record the electrical activity in the brain or an magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to look for structural abnormalities in the brain. These tests are painless, non-invasive and used to help identify the underlying causes of the epilepsy and develop tailored treatments.
Most people with epilepsy are diagnosed before they are five years old.
What is the treatment?
Medication can be used to effectively control epilepsy in about 70 per cent children. There are various medications available and these must be taken regularly to prevent seizures.
If medications are unsuccessful in controlling the epilepsy, other treatments may be used. These include:
- surgery. In some cases, epilepsy is caused by abnormal brain tissue. Removal of this tissue can prevent or reduce seizure frequency however, intensive testing and counselling are required before surgery is conducted.
- vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). This device is implanted within the body and sends stimulation pulses to the vagus nerve 24 hours per day. This has been shown to effectively prevent or reduce the number of seizures for some patients.
- special diets such as the Ketogenic and Modified Ketogenic Diets may also assist some patients.
Your child’s doctor will work with your family to determine the best treatment or combination of treatments for your child.
Department of Neurosciences
Queensland Children’s Hospital
501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)
In an emergency, always call 000.
If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.