Navigate Up

Cancer Center - A-Z Index

#
Q
Y

Print This Page

Petit mal seizure

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.

Treatment

For information on diagnosis and treatment, see:

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.

Updated: 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.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com