Spotting Epilepsy in Kids Isn't Always Easy: Know the Signs

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 6, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Neurologist Dr. Deborah Holder says she often has parents come to her with kids who've experienced what they call "funny spells."

 “Sometimes I start talking to a parent and find out the parent has [also] had ‘funny spells’ for years, but had no idea they were epileptic seizures," said Holder, who practices at Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.

She believes that epilepsy in kids is too often missed as a diagnosis, interfering with a child's learning and development.

Why? Parents believe seizures have to be far more dramatic than they typically are to be deemed to be epilepsy.

Often, according to Holder, a seizure can simply be a child seeming to be unable to talk for a few seconds. Childhood epilepsy seizures can also be confused with other conditions.

“Sometimes children experiencing seizures will see flashing lights or have temporary blurred vision, which leads them being misdiagnosed with migraine,” Holder explained in a Cedars-Sinai news release.

About 1 in every 26 Americans ends up being diagnosed with epilepsy, which is characterized by seizures and abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

Holder offered up some key facts on epilepsy.

First off, a seizure can take many forms, including:

  • A few seconds of quiet staring (this is the most common form of epilepsy seizure)

  • Moments where speech/language is tough to process or sounds garbled

  • Uncontrolled motor activity, such as a twitching arm, leg or one side of the face. This might last for 30 seconds or so

  • Numbness or tingling in a part of the body, or sensations such as weird smells or tastes in the mouth that come and go.

  • 'Convulsive' seizure, where the person falls to the ground and their whole body convulses. That's the rarest form of seizure, Holder noted.

According to Holder, once a child suspected of epilepsy is brought to a doctor, diagnosis is often relatively easy, based on symptoms. Sometimes an EEG (electroencephalogram) is performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Family smartphones can help, as well: Often, parents will use the phone to record an 'episode' a child might have at home, and play it later for the physician, Holder said.

"I advise families, if you see a child having a funny spell, get it on a video camera. We are very good at being able to tell by looking at the recording if the event is a seizure or not," she said.

If epilepsy is diagnosed, the condition can often be managed with medications. Tests are pinpointing the genes that drive epilepsy, and in some cases genetic testing can help doctors decide which medications can work best to curb a child's seizures.

In many cases, kids will outgrow epilepsy, Holder noted.

Of course, for some kids with epilepsy, seizures can be severe.

"More than a third of patients have seizures that are more difficult to control," Holder noted. "For those children, we typically do advanced diagnostic testing to see exactly where the seizures are coming from. We then remove the part of the brain causing the seizures. Nowadays, this can be done by making a very small opening in the brain and treating the affected area with a laser. The opening is closed with just one suture and the patient usually goes home the next day."

More information

There's more on childhood epilepsy at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

SOURCE: Cedars-Sinai, news release, Nov. 9, 2023

What This Means for You:

Parents, the signs of epilepsy in a child can be far more subtle than you think. An expert helps you spot it.

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