What Is Abdominal Epilepsy? Everything You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Hammond, M.D.
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Abdominal epilepsy causes seizures that affect the stomach. It is common in children and rare in adults. However, research provides insight into its diagnosis and treatment. According to a 2016 case report, abdominal epilepsy is a type of temporal lobe epilepsy, which happens when atypical electrical activity occurs in the temporal lobes of the brain.

As per its name, abdominal epilepsy causes abdominal symptoms, which may include pain and nausea, along with other features of epilepsy. Initial treatment may involve medications and lifestyle changes.

This article discusses abdominal epilepsy, including its symptoms, causes, and diagnosis. It also explains the treatment and outlook for the condition.

What are the symptoms of abdominal epilepsy?

A child places their hands to their stomach while holding a stuffed toy.
Ali Deck/Stocksy United (person appearing is a model and used for illustrative purposes only)

Abdominal epilepsy symptoms may initially resemble the symptoms of some gastrointestinal conditions.

However, symptoms of abdominal epilepsy typically include at least one neurological symptom in addition to symptoms affecting the abdomen or stomach.

Symptoms of abdominal epilepsy include:

These symptoms may occur long-term, periodically causing episodes. Case reports of abdominal seizures showed that participants had pain or seizures that lasted from 1 minute to 15 minutes, with repeated episodes in 1 day.

Abdominal seizures can happen during sleep, which can make symptoms hard to notice. However, you may notice symptoms upon waking.

As abdominal epilepsy can be a type of temporal lobe epilepsy, it may also present other symptoms related to temporal lobe seizures. These symptoms can include fear or anxiety, and aura, unusual sensations that occur before a seizure.

Read more about temporal lobe seizures and their symptoms.

Call 911 for changes in consciousness and abdominal symptoms

Get emergency care or call 911 for anyone experiencing any of the following:

  • severe symptoms, such as pain
  • convulsions
  • changes in consciousness

Call 911 for any seizure symptoms that last longer than 5 minutes.

Learn more about symptoms of pain in seizures.

Who does it affect?

Abdominal epilepsy occurs most frequently in children, but it does rarely occur in adolescents and adults.

Abdominal epilepsy symptoms in adults and children may be similar.

However, due to its rarity and abdominal symptoms, some doctors may misdiagnose adults experiencing abdominal epilepsy with psychological or gastrointestinal conditions.

What causes abdominal epilepsy?

Abdominal epilepsy is a type of epilepsy that occurs in the temporal lobe of the brain, also known as temporal lobe epilepsy.

A 2016 study also suggested that abdominal epilepsy may relate to either generalized or focal epilepsy syndromes. Generalized epilepsy causes seizures that affect both sides of the brain. By contrast, focal epilepsy, which includes temporal lobe epilepsy, are seizures that take place in only one part of the brain.

Like all other types of epilepsy, abdominal epilepsy may develop due to a brain injury or structural and functional differences in the brain. This can cause atypical electrical activity to occur in the brain, leading to seizures as a result.

Causes of epilepsy include:

  • a brain injury, infection, or trauma, such as a stroke
  • brain structural or functional differences from birth
  • drug or alcohol misuse
  • a prolonged or febrile seizure

However, clinicians and researchers are still not sure why some people’s epilepsy manifests as abdominal seizures and pain.

Learn more about the causes and triggers of seizures, including epilepsy seizures.

How do doctors diagnose abdominal epilepsy?

The symptoms of abdominal epilepsy can be similar to those of other physical and psychological conditions, such as abdominal migraine or a conversion disorder. This can make it more difficult to know the underlying cause of your symptoms. 

However, doctors can check certain criteria when diagnosing your symptoms that may indicate abdominal epilepsy. These criteria can include:

  • an atypical EEG result
  • additional neurological symptoms, such as confusion or fainting
  • an improvement or stop to symptoms after taking antiseizure medications
  • no symptom improvement when taking treatment for other conditions

If these and other characteristics are present, the doctor may suspect abdominal epilepsy. However, a doctor may still order additional tests to rule out other possible causes of abdominal pain. 

Medical tests a doctor may order include:

  • blood tests
  • abdominal ultrasounds
  • MR scans, CT scans, or other imaging scans
  • endoscopy or laparoscopy of the digestive system tract

What is the treatment for abdominal epilepsy?

After diagnosing abdominal epilepsy, doctors may first prescribe you an antiseizure medication to treat your seizures. Antiseizure medications can be effective in treating abdominal epilepsy and lead to a positive response. Speak with your doctor before taking any medications or supplements while taking antiseizure medications.

Other approaches may support treatment with antiseizure medications or provide alternatives if antiseizure medications are ineffective. These treatment approaches can include:

  • a ketogenic diet
  • neurostimulation, such as vagus nerve stimulation
  • surgery

Read more about neurostimulation and surgery for epilepsy.

What is the outlook for abdominal epilepsy?

Abdominal epilepsy can cause severe symptoms or symptoms that may impact your quality of life. However, the outlook for abdominal epilepsy can be positive, with many people responding well to antiseizure medications.

In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that as much as 70% of people with epilepsy can live seizure-free with effective treatment.

Some people may need to take medications consistently to manage seizures. Others may be able to reduce their medication gradually with support from a doctor if they do not experience a seizure for several years.

However, be sure to get direct guidance from your doctor before you stop taking antiseizure medications or another prescription treatment.

Summary

Doctors more commonly diagnose abdominal epilepsy in children, but the condition can also occur in adults. It can cause abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea, along with neurological symptoms. Neurological symptoms may include confusion or changes in consciousness.

As abdominal symptoms are common in other health conditions, people with abdominal epilepsy may be at risk of experiencing misdiagnosis. However, doctors will use some tests to rule out other medical conditions.

Antiseizure medications can be effective in treating abdominal epilepsy. Contact your doctor if your treatment for seizures or any other abdominal symptoms is ineffective.

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 11
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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