The term "petit mal" is used to describe a type of seizure characterized by a brief, abrupt loss of memory and motor control. These episodes are distinguished from longer seizures that often involve convulsions and a prolonged loss of consciousness, sometimes called "grand mal" seizures. Petit mal seizures are most common in children and teenagers. They usually only cause a relatively minor interruption in consciousness, sometimes accompanied by small jerks of the hands or facial muscles. The medical term for this kind of seizure is an absence seizure, referring to the brief absence of consciousness that is the most common symptom.
Symptoms of petit mal seizures can be hard to observe because the seizures themselves are so brief, often lasting only a few seconds. The patient may appear to be simply staring into space. There are a few common outward indications of a complex absence seizure, such as involuntary smacking of the lips or chewing, hand movements, and fluttering eyelids; these activities are called automatism. During this time, the person will have no awareness of his or her surroundings and will be unable to continue conscious activity such as movement or talking.
Although typically brief, these seizures can sometimes include symptoms common to longer seizures, such as slumping or falling over. They happen very suddenly, and can occur at any time. People who have absence seizures may experience them many times a day.
Seizures of any kind are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Brain cells called neurons normally produce small electrical charges that regulate brain and body functions. Illness or injury to the brain can cause this activity to fall out of synchronization, which can result in seizures, although the precise details of why this happens are still not fully understood. Some known causes of epilepsy and epilepsy-like disorders include metabolic disturbances, such as kidney or liver disease; low levels of sodium, magnesium, or calcium; cerebral trauma or illness, such as a brain tumor; birth defects; and heredity.
Since petit mals are so brief and their symptoms are often subtle, they can be difficult to detect and diagnose. Full recovery from a seizure is often very fast; however, the victim will have no memory of the episode or any events that occurred during that time. In children, their first indication may be unexplained learning difficulties or an inability to focus on schoolwork. Children with absence seizures are sometimes incorrectly diagnosed with learning disabilities.
Medical procedures such as blood tests, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electroencephalography (EEG) may be used to test for irregular brain activity and other conditions, such as a brain tumor, that could cause seizures. Other tests use flashing lights in the eyes to measure the brain's electrical activity under stimulation. Such measures can often determine the nature of the seizures, which is important for determining what medication can best treat them.
Some people believe they should attempt to restrain a person who is suffering a seizure, to prevent them from injuring themselves or biting or swallowing their tongue. These beliefs are based on outdated misconceptions about epilepsy; such actions can actually result in injuries to either person. The best response is to remove any obvious dangers, such as nearby sharp objects, and wait for the seizure to pass. Meanwhile, offer verbal reassurances to other bystanders and to the patient, who may be disoriented. Absence seizures occur and subside quickly, so there may be no time for any further action.
Absence seizures are most common in children, many of whom outgrow them and are able to discontinue medication as they reach adulthood. Only a small percentage of petit mal sufferers have tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures or progress to lifelong epilepsy. Even then, many are able to live normal lives with regular medication.
Children who are diagnosed with absence seizures should be watched carefully when they are swimming or performing other activities that could be dangerous. A person could drown in he or she loses consciousness while in a bathtub or swimming pool. Patients who have seizures may not be permitted to drive and may need to avoid strenuous physical activity.
Both "petit mal" and "grand mal" are French terms, meaning "little illness" and "great illness" respectively. Medical professionals and others who deal with epilepsy on a regular basis often consider these terms outdated, preferring more precise medical terminology such as "absence seizure." The word epilepsy itself does not describe a single disease, as is commonly believed, but rather a wide range of brain disorders characterized by seizure activity.