Petit mal seizure

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Definition

A petit mal seizure is the term given to a staring spell. It is most commonly called an absence seizure. It is a brief (usually less than 15 seconds) disturbance of brain function due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

Alternative Names

Seizure - petit mal; Absence seizure; Seizure - absence

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Petit mal seizures occur most often in people under age 20, usually in children ages 6 to 12.

They may occur with other types of seizures, such as generalized tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures), twitches or jerks (myoclonus), or sudden loss of muscle strength (atonic seizures).

Symptoms

Most petit mal seizures last only a few seconds. They often involve staring episodes or absence spells. The episodes may:

  • Occur many times a day
  • Occur for weeks to months before being noticed
  • Interfere with school and learning
  • Be mistaken for lack of attention or other misbehavior

Unexplained difficulties in school and learning difficulties may be the first sign of petit mal seizures.

During the seizure, the person may:

  • Stop walking and start again a few seconds later
  • Stop talking in mid-sentence and start again a few seconds later

The person usually does not fall during the seizure.

Immediately after the seizure, the person is usually:

  • Wide awake
  • Thinking clearly
  • Unaware of the seizure

Specific symptoms of typical petit mal seizures may include:

  • Changes in muscle activity, such as no movement, hand fumbling, fluttering eyelids, lip smacking, chewing
  • Changes in alertness (consciousness), such as staring episodes, lack of awareness of surroundings, sudden halt in movement, talking, and other awake activities
  • May be triggered by hyperventilation or flashing lights, in some cases

Atypical petit mal seizures begin slower and last longer. Symptoms are similar but muscle activity changes may be more noticeable.

Signs and tests

Treatment

For information on diagnosis and treatment, see:

Support Groups

Expectations (prognosis)

Complications

Calling your health care provider

Prevention

References

Abou-Khalil BW, Gallagher MJ, Macdonald RL. Epilepsies. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 67.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 2/27/2013
  • Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, Department of Neurosurgery, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles and Department of Anatomy, University of California, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

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This page was last updated: April 14, 2014

         
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