What are Petit Mal Seizures?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

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.

When people complain of seizures or other neurological symptoms, an EEG study can be done in a hospital to see if there is anything abnormal happening in the patient's brain.
When people complain of seizures or other neurological symptoms, an EEG study can be done in a hospital to see if there is anything abnormal happening in the patient's brain.

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.

People who suffer a petit mal seizure experience brief disorientation.
People who suffer a petit mal seizure experience brief disorientation.

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.

A person experiencing petit mal seizures may lose consciousness.
A person experiencing petit mal seizures may lose consciousness.

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.

Using illicit drugs can increase an individual's risk of seizures.
Using illicit drugs can increase an individual's risk of seizures.

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.

Brain scans and EEGs may be used to determine the cause of a seizure.
Brain scans and EEGs may be used to determine the cause of a seizure.
Petit mal seizures can occur as a result of a head injury.
Petit mal seizures can occur as a result of a head injury.
People who suffer from petit mal seizures may experience an inability to concentrate that can affect their daily life.
People who suffer from petit mal seizures may experience an inability to concentrate that can affect their daily life.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments

anon259790

It's never too early for an EEG. It's a no pain, non-invasive procedure that can be done in an hour. Early intervention in epilepsy can be imperative.

anon255377

My 7 1/2 month old son has these symptoms. It looks just like petit mal. It started Monday. His eyes would flutter and they rolled. It was so scary to see. He had 10 then, and three came together. They only last between 5 and 10 seconds. Tuesday he had four and Wednesday we went to the doctor and they said I have to wait a week before he transfers him, so Wednesday afternoon came, my boy cried for an hour, then 20 minutes later, he had 11 seizures in three and a half minutes, which I managed to record.

I got freaked out by how many he had so I phoned nhs and he was under observation on the pediatric unit. The doctors saw the video and three doctors said ti was possible absence seizures and another one wouldn't say anything. they wanted to see him having them but sent us home and said it was too soon to do an eeg and I have to go back to the doctor for him to refer my son before they do anything about it.

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