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Epilepsy in Children

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Epilepsy can be categorized by the lobe of the brain in which seizures begin.

Epilepsy is characterized by electrical disturbances in the brain called seizures. During a seizure, normal electrical patterns in the brain become disrupted and 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.  However, when a child has repeated seizures that are not associated with fever, trauma, or other temporary conditions known to cause seizures, the child is said to have a seizure disorder, or epilepsy. (See Pediatric Seizure Disorders for more information.) 

Epilepsy affects 1 to 2% of the population; therefore, millions of American children have it. It is also common in the elderly and those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, such as veterans returning from combat.  (See Epilepsy in Adults for more information.)

Epilepsy can be categorized as either generalized or partial, depending on where the seizures originate. The seizures of generalized epilepsy affect multiple sites in the brain or both sides of the brain simultaneously. The seizures of partial epilepsy (also called focal epilepsy) begin in a specific area of the brain (the focus of the seizures).

Epilepsy can also be categorized by the area of the brain where seizures begin:

Temporal lobe epilepsy is characterized by seizures that originate in the temporal lobe of the brain.  While seizures can begin in the temporal lobe, the seizures can progress to involve multiple other areas of the brain if left untreated. They often begin early in life, and even if seizures are mild there is a risk of cumulative damage over the years. Seizures should be treated as early as possible to prevent uncontrolled seizures from damaging the brain.

The other lobes of the brain can also be affected by epilepsy. Frontal lobe epilepsy affects the largest of the lobes, the frontal lobes, which are directly behind the forehead.  Occipital lobe epilepsy affects the lobe at the back of the skull. Parietal lobe epilepsy affects the lobe located between the frontal and temporal lobes – its seizures tend to spread to other areas of the brain.

Seizures can involve one or all of these locations simultaneously depending on the cause of the seizures. 

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 cerebrovascular disorder such as an arteriovenous malformation. (Find out more about the Causes of Pediatric Seizure Disorders.)

If epilepsy is associated with a growth in the brain or a vascular malformation, it can be cured in as many as 95 percent of patients by resecting the lesion. However this success rate 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 developmental abnormalities in the brain, often found in children, can be cured in 40 to 60 percent of patients depending on the ability to precisely locate the abnormal area in the brain.  (See Surgery for Epilepsy.)

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Reviewed by:  Caitlin Hoffman, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: June 2017
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI