5 Common Neurological Disorders In Children

Neurological disorders affect both behaviour and brain development in children. As a parent, here's all you should know about five common nervous system disorders.

By Subhechha Chatterjee

5 Common Neurological Disorders In Children

“I can't forget that day when I was getting my four-year-old son ready for school. All of a sudden, he collapsed in my arms, with his body jerking and arms and legs flailing. He also had slurred speech. Overcoming my shock, I rushed with him to the hospital. After a thorough check-up, the paediatrician suggested that my son could be suffering from epilepsy, a neurological disorder. I was clueless and shocked!” shares Reshma Lal from Delhi.

What is a neurological disorder?

A neurological disorder is a disturbance or malfunction of the nervous system.

Our nervous system is divided into the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS).

The CNS includes the brain and the spinal cord, which is a bundle of nerves within the spinal column. The spinal cord relays electrical impulses back and forth between the brain and body organs. The brain processes these electrical impulses and responds to them.

But how does the CNS receive electrical impulses from body organs? The answer is, through the PNS. The PNS is made up of nerves that connect the CNS to different body organs.

What are the causes of common nervous system disorders?

Reading about Reshma's son must have left you wondering how a chirpy child could have a neurological disorder like epilepsy. Well, common nervous system disorders can have several causes such as:

  • Exposure to environmental toxins like lead, mercury, sulphur and asbestos
  • Smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy
  • Family history of neurological disorders
  • Genetic mutations
  • Congenital birth defects
  • Bacterial and viral infections of the CNS
  • Injury to the brain, spinal cord or a vital nerve
  • Certain diseases and allergies like celiac disease, some forms of cancer, autoimmune disorders and gluten intolerance may also affect the nervous system

Therefore, it is necessary for parents to be well informed about neurological disorders in children. In fact, even basic knowledge of neurological disorders and their symptoms would help parents address the issues at the earliest.

So, let’s go ahead and learn about the most common neurological disorders in children.

1. Epilepsy

This is a chronic neurological disorder of the CNS. Some of those affected by epilepsy experience sudden and recurrent seizures.

Symptoms: Epilepsy symptoms are broadly divided into two categories: motor and non-motor symptoms.

Motor symptoms are characterised by shaky and uncontrolled movements; and twitching, tensing and contraction of muscles.

Non-motor symptoms include losing awareness of one’s surroundings, a blank stare and not responding to any stimulus. There may also be a temporary or prolonged change in emotions, cognition or loss of sensation like smell or hearing.

Causes: There is no singular cause of epilepsy in children. Some common causes are:

  • Lack of oxygen at the time of birth
  • Family history of epilepsy
  • Presence of brain tumour
  • Certain forms of brain injury
  • Infectious diseases like encephalitis and meningitis
  • Prenatal injury

Treatment: It is important to keep a record of the frequency and type of seizure and report the same to the paediatrician. The child might have to undergo a few neurological tests, blood examinations, and an MRI or an electroencephalogram (EEG). Once epilepsy is confirmed, medication could be prescribed. The parents may also be advised to bring the child for regular check-ups. In some cases, surgery may also be suggested. Nowadays, surgeries for deep brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation are considered effective options for treating epilepsy.

2. Cerebral palsy

It is a group of disorders that affect movement, balance and posture. It may sometimes even impair cognition and slow down brain development. Children with cerebral palsy have delayed developmental milestones. Signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy are visible from early childhood.

Symptoms: In infants, symptoms of poor muscle tone, inability to hold the head up when picked up, and stiff body or limbs may indicate cerebral palsy. Infants with cerebral palsy may have difficulty rolling over or crawling on all fours. Toddlers and older children with cerebral palsy may be unable to grasp objects, sit straight or walk without support. They may also have constant drooling, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing.

Causes: Some possible causes of cerebral palsy in children include:

  • Premature birth
  • Brain haemorrhage or injury
  • Asphyxiation at the time of birth
  • Infections like herpes or German measles in the mother during pregnancy
  • Rh factor incompatibility between mother and child
  • Maternal exposure to environmental toxins like mercury
  • Advanced maternal age at the time of pregnancy

To diagnose cerebral palsy, the doctor would look into the child's medical history and conduct detailed neurological tests. He may also prescribe a CT scan, MRI or an ultrasound.

Treatment: Cerebral palsy treatment includes assistive aids like wheelchairs, sitting aid, walking aid or body braces. Medication or surgery may be advised in certain cases. Different therapies like speech therapy, recreational therapy, occupational therapy or psychotherapy and counselling support are also an integral part of the prolonged treatment process.

3. Muscular dystrophy

It is a set of neuromuscular conditions characterised by the gradual weakening and loss of muscle mass, also called muscle wasting. There are different types of muscular dystrophy.

Symptoms: Some common muscular dystrophy symptoms are frequent falls, problem in balancing, stiff and painful muscles, increasing curvature of the spine and difficulty relaxing contracted muscles. In some cases, muscular dystrophy may also lead to poor cognitive development and breathing difficulty.

Causes: Muscular dystrophy is caused by a genetic mutation that prevents the synthesis of the protein, dystrophin, which is responsible for muscle development and repair. The genetic mutation may be inherited or could occur in the developing embryo.

Treatment: Muscular dystrophy can be diagnosed with the help of muscle biopsy, electromyography, gene testing or enzyme assay. There is no permanent cure for muscular dystrophy but some medication can delay its progress. Surgery may sometimes be required to correct the progressively curving spine. Various therapies like physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and support of assistive aids are helpful in muscular dystrophy.

4. Migraine

This is a chronic and common neurological disorder that affects individuals across all age groups.

Symptoms: A migraine attack is typically characterised by a throbbing, one-sided headache, with extreme sensitivity to light, smell and sound at times. The pain may aggravate in case of physical exhaustion or exposure to sunlight and heat. For many children, a migraine attack may also be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, indigestion and diarrhoea.

Causes: The exact cause of migraine is still unknown. However, it is believed to be triggered by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Reasons for developing migraine could be due to a genetic mutation or any of the following:

  • Extreme exhaustion or insufficient sleep
  • Emotional stress like anxiety, depression and trauma
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Over-consumption of certain items like caffeinated drinks or processed food
  • Sudden exposure to heat or cold

Treatment: There is no cure for migraine. Preventive measures like sufficient sleep, reduced stress and anxiety, good hydration and physical fitness decrease the chances of a migraine attack. In case of a severe migraine, doctors may prescribe specific medicine, primarily painkillers, to decrease the intensity of the pain. Sometimes, anti-nausea medication may also be prescribed.

5. Attention-deficit / Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is considered to be a neurological disorder which is usually diagnosed during childhood and early adolescence. Children with ADHD find it difficult to concentrate for long, and are often inattentive and impulsive.

Symptoms: Children with ADHD may suffer from forgetfulness and inability to manage and organise simple tasks. Their hyperactivity manifests as excessive and uninterrupted talking, trouble sitting in one place for long and fidgeting. All these can result in poor academic performance and low self-esteem.

Causes: ADHD usually has the following causes:

  • Genetic mutation, as has been shown by some research studies
  • Brain injury, especially during childhood
  • Developmental problems affecting the CNS
  • Exposure to lead in the environment

Treatment: There is no known permanent cure for ADHD; however, medication, therapy (which includes behaviour modification) and counselling can decrease its severity. Medicines like stimulants or anti-depressants may be prescribed, and therapies like occupational, recreational and psychotherapy could be suggested.

Providing counselling support to both the parents and the child along with training the parent also helps.

Other neurological disorders list

While these are 5 common neurological disorders in children, even adults can have nervous system diseases such as:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Bell's Palsy
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Shingles

Some neurological disorders aren't common but can have serious consequences. Here is a list of such rare neurological disorders:

  • Kuru
  • Tolosa–Hunt syndrome
  • Vertical gaze palsy
  • Batten Disease
  • Fields Condition
  • Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome

It is important to remember the common neurological disorders’ symptoms and take your child to the paediatrician if you suspect a problem. Early diagnosis of nervous system diseases and treatment of the same can prevent them from aggravating further.

Validated by Dr Meghna Singhal, who is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and a parenting consultant at ParentCircle

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