Epilepsy is a common condition affecting the brain, and almost one in every 100 people across all ages will have the condition. Irfan Malik, consultant neurosurgeon at the London Neurosurgery Partnership, part of The Harley Street Clinic, looks at some of the more obscure epilepsy symptoms to watch out for in children.
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is caused by a sudden burst of intense electrical activity in the brain. The resulting seizures can present themselves in various ways – it all depends on which part of the brain is affected. The most well-known type of epileptic seizure is the tonic-clonic, which affects the whole brain. It is probably the most noticeable form of epilepsy and is known as a generalised seizure. This is usually identified by involuntary jerking of the body and often results in the partial or total loss of consciousness or awareness.
What are the symptoms of focal seizures?
The brain is made up of four different lobes – the parietal, temporal, occipital and frontal. Each affects different aspects of your physical and mental function and, in turn, focal seizures located in one of these areas can result in rarer types of epileptic symptoms.
In most cases the following symptoms won’t be cause for concern, but given the variation in how focal seizures can present it’s important for parents and teachers to spot potential signs of epilepsy.
While children of all ages can have a tendency to stare off into the distance – or have short attention spans – in some young children this could be a symptom of Childhood Absence Epilepsy (CAE).
CAE syndrome triggers what are known as absence seizures. They usually last about 10 seconds and end abruptly, consisting of staring spells during where the child may not be aware or responsive. In many cases a child will then resume normal activity straight after the seizure and may not even be aware that it even happened, which can make it particularly hard to diagnose. Absence seizures can occur from anywhere between one to 100 times a day. If left undiagnosed they can go on to affect their performance at school, and cause tonic-clonic fits later on in life.
Epilepsy located in the temporal lobes will affect your child’s functions, including things such as feelings, emotions, thoughts, and experiences. An example of this is seizures that appear as feelings of Deja-vu, and a sense that what’s happening has happened before. However in other cases some people can feel as if everything around them appears strange or foreign.
3. Strange sensations
The Parietal lobe is known as the “association cortex” as it is responsible for connecting meaning to the brain’s functions, such as recognising sounds as words and what you see as visual images. Seizures in this part of the brain can result in strange sensations – known as sensory seizures – and can present in a number of ways. For example, some children often feel like a part of their body is missing, have difficulty understanding words, experience hallucinations and have feelings of numbness, heat, pressure or electricity. These can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Epilepsy occurring in the occipital lobe – as the name suggests – will affect your child’s sight. This is usually hard to diagnose and tends to be rare. Symptoms can include seeing flashing lights or colours, patterns, or images that appear to repeat before the eyes. It can also affect vision, causing partial blindness.
Perhaps one of the most surprising, signs of an epileptic seizure is laughter. Known as gelastic seizures – taken from the Greek word for laughter – this type of seizure will usually occur suddenly in your child, causing them to laugh, often hysterically for no obvious reason, and will seem completely out of place. It tends to be slightly more common in boys, however it’s very rare, affecting one of every 1,000 children with epilepsy.
Usually there’s nothing to worry about, however if you think your child might be exhibiting any symptoms of epilepsy then it’s best to visit a specialist epilepsy centre to confirm a diagnosis. A consultant will conduct an investigation which will usually involve a mixture of tests such as blood tests, an MRI scan, and an electroencephalogram (EEG) – a procedure which detects electrical activity in your child’s brain using small, flat metal discs (electrodes) attached to the scalp. Today, treatment is fairly straightforward and epilepsy can be managed with anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) that help control seizures. Many children will even grow out of epilepsy as they get older.
Further information on epilepsy can be found at Epilepsy Action. The London Neurosurgery Partnership at The Harley Street Clinic can provide an initial assessment service and offers support for children and their families who are looking for an epilepsy diagnosis.