Nerves are very similar to wires in that they carry signals from one place to another. Nerves are designed to tell a muscle, an organ, or another nerve what to do. To send the message quickly and efficiently, a nerve — like a wire — is insulated. This way, a message can travel along a nerve rapidly, without stimulating a neighboring nerve.
The brain is a massive and highly organized collection of nerves that controls all of the body’s functions. When nerves in the brain fire inappropriately, the result can be a seizure. Seizures produce a sudden change in behavior, such as jerking, twitching, rhythmic shaking, or a combination of all three. A sudden increase in the electrical activity in the brain is the cause of a seizure.
How do you distinguish between benign jerking motions and a true seizure? Try to stop the jerking by putting pressure on the affected limb. If you cannot stop the jerking and you continue to feel the muscles rhythmically contracting and relaxing, your child is having a seizure. The jerking movements of a seizure usually last only a minute or two, rarely longer than five minutes. When these classic types of seizures involve the entire body, they are called generalized or tonic-clonic seizures. When only one part of the body is involved, such as the right arm, it is called a focal seizure. Breathing can stop during generalized seizures, although this is uncommon.
In some seizures, there will be no jerking at all. Instead, your child may stop moving and stare off into space. This is called an absence seizure. You can tell that this is a seizure because she cannot be engaged during the episode — she will not make eye contact and cannot respond to her name. After a minute or two, the seizure will resolve. Breathing is never compromised in a simple absence seizure.
Following any type of seizure, the child will be extremely tired, and often she will go to sleep. One exception to this rule is a very brief seizure lasting only a second or two. This type of seizure is less likely to be followed by a sleepy phase, and given its brevity, it may go unnoticed altogether.
The most common type of seizure in children ages six months to six years is called afebrile seizure. It is caused by a rapidly rising temperature. Approximately 2 to 5 percent of all children experience at least one febrile seizure by age six. With a febrile seizure, a child’s arms and legs will jerk rhythmically and symmetrically. Most febrile seizures are not followed by a sleepy phase.
There are literally dozens of other causes of seizures, including an infection, a mass, and ingestion of a poisonous substance. Seizures can also be hereditary, meaning that they run in families.
If a child has recurrent seizures that are thought not to be febrile seizures, she is given the diagnosis of epilepsy. A diagnosis of epilepsy does not mean that a child has a severe neurological disorder. Although epilepsy can result from severe brain injury, it can also occur in healthy children with otherwise completely normal brains. In fact, many bright young children have epilepsy in early childhood and then grow out of it in a couple of years.