Idiopathic Epilepsy

There are a variety of idiopathic epilepsy syndromes. Children with idiopathic epilepsy may have generalized or partial seizures. Many, although not all, idiopathic epilepsy syndromes are benign and the child will eventually grow out of them. Relatives of a child with idiopathic epilepsy often have a history of seizures.

What are other terms for idiopathic epilepsy?

An older term for idiopathic epilepsy is primary epilepsy. The terms “idiopathic epilepsy” and “cryptogenic epilepsy” are sometimes used interchangeably, especially in older books and articles.

What causes idiopathic epilepsy?

By definition, there is no apparent underlying cause of idiopathic epilepsy, such as a structural problem with the brain or a metabolic disorder. It is possible that idiopathic epilepsy is caused by tiny abnormalities at the cellular level. We are now learning that many, although not all, idiopathic epilepsy syndromes have an associated genetic component.

In most cases, the exact way in which epilepsy is inherited is unclear. However, some researchers estimate that genes could account for 70% to 90% of the tendency to develop epilepsy.

What epilepsy syndromes are idiopathic?

Idiopathic epilepsy syndromes include:

  • benign epilepsy of childhood with centrotemporal spikes (BECTS)
  • childhood epilepsy with occipital paroxysms
  • benign neonatal familial convulsions
  • benign neonatal convulsions
  • benign myoclonic epilepsy in infancy
  • childhood absence epilepsy
  • juvenile absence epilepsy
  • juvenile myoclonic epilepsy

How many other children have idiopathic epilepsy?

Idiopathic epilepsy is common; about 30% of childhood epilepsy is idiopathic. Together, idiopathic and cryptogenic epilepsy account for 55% to 75% of cases of childhood epilepsy. It is difficult to be precise, because different researchers define these terms differently.

How is idiopathic epilepsy treated?

Idiopathic epilepsy is treated with anti-epileptic drugs.

What is the outlook for a child with idiopathic epilepsy?

The outlook for a child with idiopathic epilepsy depends on the specific condition and how well the seizures respond to treatment. Several idiopathic epilepsy syndromes, such as childhood absence epilepsy and BECTS, usually go away on their own. With other syndromes, though, the child may need to take anti-epileptic drugs all his life.

Elizabeth J. Donner, MD, FRCPC