This easily-missed condition in kids looks like daydreaming, strikes 300 times a day

This easily-missed condition in kids looks like daydreaming, strikes 300 times a day
Absence seizures can afflict school-aged kids up to 200 to 300 times a day, but they only last a few seconds so are often missed. (SOURCE: WECT)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Ottie VanCuren faces more challenges than most 21-year-olds, but you wouldn't know about his inner battle from his normal outward appearance.

"I don't know what I did wrong for me to be cursed with something like this, but I'm dealing with it. I'm staying strong, keeping my head up," said VanCuren.

He lives with epilepsy, the medical term for having seizures on a regular basis.

There are many different types of seizures, which are like electrical short-circuits in the brain.

VanCuren currently experiences tonic-clonic seizures, which cause a loss of consciousness, full-body stiffness, followed by muscle contractions.

A seizure once happened while he was driving.

"I woke up with in the middle of a road with an ambulance and a needle in my chest, I was pretty shocked," Ottie said.

"It was pretty horrifying for me," said Michelle VanCuren, Ottie's mom. "As a mother you want to protect your children and keep them from being hurt."

It's impossible to miss the dramatic episodes which have afflicted VanCuren since he was 19. The family is learning to live with the tonic-clonic seizures, but Michelle's research about her son's condition caused her to do a double-take.

"Looking back on my son's childhood and school years, don't be so quick to push something aside," said Michelle.

Growing up, she said Ottie had all the signs and symptoms of absence seizures, a different type than he experiences today, but was never formally diagnosed because the family didn't know about this rare seizure.

When a child is having an absence seizure, the primary outward sign is staring off into space. Their eyes may also turn upwards, the eyelids might flutter, or the hand might twitch.

During the seizure, the person is typically not responsive to verbal or visual cues.

After less than ten seconds, the child returns to consciousness and has no memory of the episode.

But overall, the child simply looks like he or she is daydreaming, which is why the seizure is so hard to catch.

"I would say lights on, nobody's home," said Dr. Sasidharan Taravath, MD, a pediatric neurologist based in Wilmington.

Epilepsy characterized by absence seizures are rare. One study estimates they afflict about 7 per 100,000 kids.

"Kids can get 200-300 [absence] seizures a day, because each seizure usually lasts maybe 2-3 seconds, maybe as long as 10 seconds. But eventually it adds up," said Taravath.

Dr. Taravath says teachers are often the first to notice absence seizures because kids look like they are daydreaming.

"When I talk to my young patients, they tell me that they do get an awareness of something they missed," said Taravath. "Maybe a part of a sentence, or what the teacher said. But most of the time, they just don't know that it's happening."

Michelle remembers the constant calls from Ottie's teachers.

"Teachers calling me every day, 'Michelle, your son's not paying attention in school again, he's staring out the window, he's wrestling with his pencils,'" she said. "He's had a blank stare every day."

As a school-age kid, Ottie was diagnosed with ADHD, but Michelle said she wishes he had been tested for absence seizures, which are diagnosed with an EEG, a type of test that measures electrical activity in the brain.

"Press the issue with your doctor, if you're concerned," said Michelle.

Dr. Taravath said kids diagnosed with ADD or ADHD should be tested with EEG, but that doesn't always happen.

"Some [kids] have been categorized as ADHD but truly have generalized epilepsy or absence seizures," said Taravath.

With medications and treatment, about 80 percent of kids will outgrow absence seizures, according to Taravath. But the other 20 percent will grow up into adults with epilepsy.

The ketogenic diet, which is very low in carbohydrates, may also reduce seizures in some people.

Living with epilepsy, Ottie said he is careful to avoid triggers, which for him include lack of sleep.

He also takes daily anti-epileptic medication, plus doses of CBD oil, which he said help to reduce the onset of a seizure.

"It's my mom and my dad and my best friend Will," said VanCuren. "They're always there for me."

If you live in the Cape Fear region in North Carolina, there is an epilepsy support group that meets monthly. For more information, check out their Facebook page.

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