Understanding Epilepsy in Children


Help them balance epilepsy with childhood

Children living with epilepsy are still children, so let them be themselves. Your child may have epilepsy, but don’t let epilepsy define them. As the parent or guardian of a child living with partial-onset seizures or primary generalized tonic-clonic seizures (PGTCS), you probably know all too well the impact on his or her day-to-day life. The first step to finding a balance between treatment and childhood in a child living with seizures is to understand epilepsy.

What is epilepsy?

  • Epilepsy means the same thing as "seizure disorders."
  • Epilepsy is a condition of the brain causing repeated and unpredictable seizures.
  • A seizure is caused by a disturbance in the normal electrical activity of the brain.
  • Someone may be diagnosed with epilepsy if they experience two or more of these seizures separated by at least 24 hours.

What are the different kinds of seizures?

There are many types of epilepsy and they affect people in different ways. Seizures are often classified as partial-onset (or focal-onset) seizures, generalized-onset seizures, or unknown-onset seizures.

Around 3.4 million people in the United States are living with epilepsy

Around 3.4 million people in the United States are living with epilepsy

Partial-onset seizures are the most common type of seizure in children. Approximately one-half to two-thirds of seizures in children are partial-onset seizures. Partial-onset seizures start in only one side of the brain. Don’t let the name fool you—partial-onset seizures can be serious and can affect your child’s ability to respond to what’s happening around them. They deserve the full attention of you and your child’s doctor. Partial-onset seizures can be hard to spot. In fact, sometimes they may be hard to recognize in your child.

There are two types of partial-onset seizures.

  • Simple partial seizures (or focal-onset aware seizures) can be subtle. While a child may not be able to control the seizure itself, he or she remains aware that something is going on. For example, simple partial seizures might cause an involuntary movement of the leg, an occasional sense of déjà vu, or the perception of an odor that isn’t really there.
  • Complex partial seizures (or focal-onset impaired awareness seizures) impair consciousness or can cause some children to lose consciousness entirely. Children experiencing one may appear "spaced out" for a moment, or have repetitive behavior such as picking at their clothes or smacking their lips.

Partial-onset seizures can sometimes generalize—that is, spread across the entire brain—often resulting in a full-on convulsive seizure. This kind of seizure may be called a secondarily generalized partial-onset seizure.

Primary Generalized Tonic-Clonic Seizures (PGTCS)

There are many types of generalized-onset seizures, including primary generalized tonic-clonic seizures. VIMPAT is a prescription medicine approved for use with other medicines for the treatment of primary generalized tonic-clonic seizures in people 4 years of age and older.

This type of seizure (also called a convulsion) is what most people think of when they hear the word "seizure." Another term for this type of seizure is "grand mal." As implied by the name, they combine the characteristics of tonic and clonic seizures. Tonic means stiffening, and clonic means rhythmical jerking.

The tonic phase comes first: All the muscles stiffen. Air being forced past the vocal cords causes a cry or groan. The person loses consciousness and falls to the floor, and may bite their tongue or inside of their cheek. If this happens, saliva may look a bit bloody.

After the tonic phase comes the clonic phase: The arms and usually the legs begin to jerk rapidly and rhythmically, bending and relaxing at the elbows, hips, and knees. After a few minutes, the jerking slows and stops. These seizures generally last 1 to 3 minutes. Afterwards, the person may be sleepy, confused, irritable, or depressed.