Brain, Nervous System and Mental Conditions


What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that involves repeated seizures. The seizures are triggered by changes in the electrical and chemical activity of the brain. Seizures have many different causes and can occur in different places in the brain. Doctors say a person has epilepsy when:

  • They have two or more seizures
  • The seizures are not brought on by causes that can be prevented, such as a having a fever or low blood sugar

Seizures are also called convulsions, episodes or fits. They come on suddenly. Seizures temporarily change your child's state of awareness and physical activity. They also affect the senses, such as smell, vision or sensation. You might not notice that some types of seizures are happening. They may seem to be simple lapses of attention.

Most children with seizures are treated by doctors called neurologists. Neurologists specialize in disorders of the brain and nervous system. Neurologists who specialize in treating epilepsy are called epileptologists. Diagnosing epilepsy can be very complex because seizures vary so much from person to person. Before deciding on treatment, your child's healthcare team will try to find out what causes your child's seizures. Read more about the Neurology Department at Seattle Children's.

Medicine helps about two out of three children with epilepsy stop having seizures. If medicine alone does not help enough, your child may benefit from surgery. This article will tell you more about our services in neurosurgery for children with epilepsy.

Epilepsy in Children

Epilepsy happens more in children than it does in adults. It affects about 1% of the general population - one out of every 100 people. About 5% of children younger than 5 years old have seizures. That is about one in every 20 children under 5.

This number does not include children who have seizures caused by a high fever. These kinds of seizures are different from epilepsy. They are called febrile seizures. They either happen only once or only when your child has a fever.

A number of conditions besides epilepsy or high fever can cause seizures:

  • Brain tumors
  • Head injuries
  • Exposure to poisons
  • Brain infections
  • Injury to the brain of a baby before birth
  • Genetic abnormalities

When the reason for seizures is epilepsy, doctors are able to find a more specific cause for the seizures about half of the time.

Epilepsy at Seattle Children's

In addition to medical management of epilepsy, Children's has a very active and well-respected epilepsy surgery program.

Our Neurology and Neurosurgery Departments work together closely. Doctors in these programs work with you to decide if your child might benefit from surgery. We are also a part of the University of Washington Epilepsy Surgery Program.

Our neurosurgeons operate on about 40 children with epilepsy each year. We use the most up-to-date technology and science to find where your child's seizures start and to do surgery on this area. Most surgeries involve removing part of the brain where your child's seizures begin - either with open surgery or laser ablation surgery, a newer minimally invasive procedure. Seattle Children's is the only pediatric hospital in the Pacific Northwest, and one of only a handful of centers in the country, to offer laser ablation surgery for epilepsy. We also perform surgeries for neurostimulation devices to improve seizure control without medication.