Petit mal seizures, also called absence seizures, are a type of seizure, or periodic abnormal brain activity, manifested as staring blankly into space for a few seconds. The designation petit mal comes from the French for "little illness" and is distinguished from grand mal or "great illness" seizures, which cause convulsions and loss of consciousness. While laypeople still often refer to grand mal and petit mal seizures, these terms are considered obsolete by the medical community. Grand mal seizures are more correctly referred to as tonic-clonic seizures.
In addition to a blank stare, petit mal seizures can also include involuntary movements such as twitching or rapidly blinking the eyes, or jerking the arm. The sufferer may experience a sensation of flashing or blinking lights in his or her peripheral vision, often right before the seizure. It is possible for a person experiencing petit mal seizure to lose consciousness for a few seconds as well, usually experiencing a bit of disorientation afterwards as a result. Some people move from one place to another with no apparent purpose during a petit mal seizure.
Petit mal seizures are a common symptom of epilepsy, a chronic neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures. However, seizures can also occur as a result of fever, head injury, brain tumor, various neurological disorders, and as a reaction to medication. Epilepsy that presents as recurring petit mal seizures is called absence epilepsy or pyknolepsy. When the first symptoms appear before the age of 12, the disorder may be called childhood absence epilepsy, while a case appearing during the patient's teens is sometimes called juvenile absence epilepsy. Stress, bright lights, and other intense stimuli can trigger petit mal seizures in epileptics, and these triggers are often very specific for each individual.
Petit mal seizures are not dangerous on their own, but they can be a symptom of a medically serious condition. People who suffer from absence seizures often experience an inability to concentrate, however, that can interfere with their daily life. They are also at risk of accidental injury during periods of unconsciousness. Sufferers should not drive or participate in attention critical activities unless the seizures are well controlled.
Absence epilepsy is treated with anticonvulsant medication such as ethosuximide, lamotrigine, and sodium valproate. It is important to balance the risks and side effects of medication against the impact of the seizures on the patient's life. Some patients find petit mal seizures very disruptive, and others do not. Whether medication is worth the risk must be determined on a case by case basis. It is also important to continue to monitor an absence epileptic taking medication, as the symptoms may disappear or become much less frequent with age.