Understanding Cerebral Palsy Seizures
Seizures occur in people who have cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Epilepsy occurs in about one-third of all individuals with cerebral palsy, and the two conditions share many of the same causes.
A lack of oxygen to the baby or an infection spread from mother to child, among other issues, can cause cerebral palsy. This makes seizures a fairly common side effect of cerebral palsy.
Seizures range in intensity from mild to severe. Some seizures are almost unnoticeable and can be mistaken for simple inattention. Others can be violent and intense. These seizures can cause the person to lose consciousness.
Seizures of all types occur when there is abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Where the activity occurs will determine the intensity of the seizure.
Types of Cerebral Palsy Seizures
Petit Mal Seizures
Known as “absence seizures,” petit mal seizures are characterized by staring spells of 15 seconds or less. They happen when there is a disturbance of brain function due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
Petit mal seizures occur most commonly in people under the age of 20, usually in children aged 6 to 12.
Petit mal seizures can happen with other seizures, including grand mal seizures or atonic seizures. These small seizures can happen many times throughout the day and can be mistaken for inattention. Petit mal seizures can also happen for weeks or months without being identified.
Symptoms of petit mal seizures last a few seconds.
- Staring or vacant look
- Interruptions (a person may stop walking or talking-mid sentence then start again a few seconds later)
- Fluttering eyelids
- Lip smacking
In most cases, a person will not lose consciousness after a petit mal seizure. However, they will not know that the seizure happened.
Grand Mal Seizures
A grand mal seizure is much more intense than a petit mal seizure. Grand mal seizures are characterized by a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. Also known as a tonic-clonic seizure, a grand mal seizure is usually what comes to mind when people think of seizures.
In this type of seizure, abnormal electrical activity occurs throughout the brain, not just in one spot. While it can be caused by a stroke or other health problems, a grand mal seizure is usually caused by epilepsy.
Although grand mal seizures are traumatic, some people who have one seizure will not have another. However, people with epilepsy may need daily anti-seizure medication to prevent a recurrence.
Recognizing Grand Mal Seizures
Often before a seizure, a person will get a warning sign. Warning signs can be different in every person. These feelings are known as “auras.” Auras can affect different senses, including sight and smell.
Other warning signs of a grand mal seizure include:
- A scream or cry at the beginning as tightening muscles around the vocal cords force air out
- Sensory changes
Phases of Grand Mal Seizures
There are two phases to a grand mal seizure: tonic and clonic.
In the tonic phase, the victim loses consciousness, their muscles contract and they fall down. This phase lasts between 10 and 20 seconds. In the clonic phase, the victim’s muscles go into rhythmic contractions or convulsions. This phase usually lasts less than two minutes.
If you see someone having a grand mal seizure, put something soft under the head and do not try to restrain them. Try to keep them as safe as possible in their environment. Note how long the convulsions last, as this information might be important for medical professionals.
Partial seizures, also known as focal onset seizures, occur when abnormal electrical disturbances happen in just one area of the brain. Partial seizures occasionally become generalized seizures, which affect the whole brain. When this occurs it is called secondary generalization.
Partial seizures fall into two groups: simple and complex. Simple partial seizures do not affect awareness or memory. Complex partial seizures affect memory of the events before, during and immediately following the seizure.
Symptoms of partial seizures include:
- Abdominal pain
- Abnormal muscle contraction
- Dilated pupils
- Eyes turning uncontrollably
- Fast heart rate
- Numbness, tingling or crawling sensations (like ants crawling on the skin)
Recognizing Complex Partial Seizures
Complex partial seizures are also referred to as focal onset impaired awareness seizures. This type of seizure occurs in a localized area of the brain and can cause short term memory loss.
During the seizure, the person will appear confused and disoriented. They may make repetitive motions or sounds or simply look around. These seizures typically last between 30 seconds and two minutes. After the seizure ends, the person will not remember the warning or the episode, as this type of seizure occurs can cause short term memory loss.
It is common for a person who experiences partial complex seizures to be very drowsy and need to sleep afterwards. This is especially true if multiple seizures happen in one day.
Generally speaking, complex partial seizures are not dangerous unless the person has one while driving a car, operating machinery or doing some other activity where a temporary loss of consciousness could be hazardous.
Partial Seizures and Cerebral Palsy
Partial seizures happen in individuals with temporal lobe epilepsy, which may co-occur with cerebral palsy.
While there are no cures for partial seizures, they may be successfully managed with anti-seizure medications. However, the Cleveland Clinic reports that about 20% to 30% of patients with partial seizures do not respond to medication. For these patients, surgery can be an option if the damaged area of the brain can be identified. Surgery may also help with other issues associated with cerebral palsy, such as muscle spasticity.