All About Absence Seizures (Petit-Mal Seizures)

All About Absence Seizures (Petit-Mal Seizures)

A neurological phenomenon that often goes unnoticed or misunderstood. Absence seizures are a form of epilepsy and an actual medical condition. 

While they may seem less severe than other types of seizures, such as tonic-clonic seizures, they are still a significant neurological disorder that can impact daily life. 

So, as always, whether you know someone affected by it or have experienced them, this article is for you. Let’s look into the symptoms, causes and management strategies

What are Absence Seizures?

The Subtle Seizure. Absence seizures, often unnoticed due to their fleeting nature, represent a unique form of epilepsy marked by brief lapses in consciousness, predominantly affecting children. 

They are also known as Petit-Mal Seizures because of their sudden and brief occurrences. 

These episodes, sometimes mistaken for mere daydreaming or inattention, reflect deeper neuromuscular disorders demanding awareness and understanding.

The Ephemeral World of Absence Seizures

Characterized by short-term changes in brain activity, absence seizures typically manifest as sudden, silent spells where a child might stare blankly, flutter eyelids, or halt mid-sentence. 

Have you ever seen someone, especially a child or a teenager, staring into space? How about one making hand movements suddenly? Okay. How about a kid fluttering his eyelids, smacking his lips together, doing a backward and forward body movement, looking suddenly fixed at a point without being able to move, or suddenly stopped talking in an attempt to make a sentence? Any of these are usually brief, in fact no more than fifteen seconds.

If you have not seen any child do that, I have just painted a picture of one who was experiencing a state of unconsciousness called, absence epilepsy. You can as well name it, petit mal seizure.It occurs suddenly. This indicates an underlying neuromuscular disorder.

Although they typically last only a few seconds to half a minute, they can occur frequently throughout the day and affect concentration, learning, and overall quality of life. 

Therefore, while absence seizures may not always be immediately life-threatening, they can still have serious implications and should be properly managed and treated by healthcare professionals.

Understanding Absence Seizures (Petit-Mal Seizures)

What are Absence Seizures?

  • Short-term, sudden lapses in awareness
  • Common in children aged 5-9 years old
  • Characterized by staring spells, subtle body movements, and temporary loss of awareness

Recognizing the Signs:

  • Brief staring episodes
  • Sudden stop in motion or speech
  • Fluttering eyelids or lip-smacking

Common Triggers:

  • Fluctuations in lighting
  • Stress or fatigue
  • Hyperventilation

What Causes Them?

  • Unknown, but genetics and environmental factors are suspected
  • Disruption in the brain’s electrical activity


  • EEG (Electroencephalography)
  • MRI scans
  • Neurological evaluation

Treatment Options:

  • Medications: Ethosuximide, Lamotrigine, Valproic Acid
  • Lifestyle adjustments for safety
  • Regular medical follow-ups

Tips for Families:

  • Maintain a daily routine
  • Educate peers and teachers
  • Create a safe environment at home and school

Seeking Help:

  • Consult a neurologist if you suspect absence seizures
  • Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for better management

Remember: You’re not alone! For more information and support, visit MBBCH.COM

Identifying the Symptoms

Primarily affecting children aged 5 to 9, absence seizures can lead to misconceptions of misbehavior or distraction. That is because the child will appear to be out of his/her body.

Absence seizures can progress into longer-lasting seizures which are called grand mal seizures. Absence and grand mal seizures can co-occur.

To know whether someone is experiencing a petit mal seizure, watch them closely. You will find out that they are not aware of their surroundings, not even by a slight touch or sound.

Unlike their more intense counterpart, the grand mal seizures, absence seizures silently weave into daily activities without warning, making them particularly elusive yet impactful on a child’s learning and social engagement.

Epilepsy Myths vs. Facts: What’s the Truth?

knee twitching facts and myths

Misconceptions about epilepsy and absence seizures can lead to stigma and isolation. Let’s debunk some common myths:

Myth: Epilepsy is contagious.

Fact: Epilepsy is a neurological condition; it cannot be spread from person to person. 🚫

Myth: You should restrain someone having a seizure.

Fact: Never restrain someone during a seizure. Ensure they are safe and wait for the seizure to pass. 🙅‍♂️

Myth: People with epilepsy can’t lead normal lives.

Fact: With proper management and support, individuals with epilepsy can lead full, productive lives. ✨

The Causes of Absence Seizures

The precise origins of absence seizures remain largely a mystery, though links to genetic factors and environmental triggers, such as flashing lights or hyperventilation, have been speculated. 

Central to these episodes is the abnormal electrical activity in the brain, disrupting the delicate neural harmony and manifesting in these momentary lapses.

Some of the theories on causes by thought leaders and researchers put forward are discussed below:

Genetic Predispositions 🧬:

Research indicates that absence seizures may have a hereditary component, making them more common in individuals with a family history of seizures. 

Genetic studies have identified certain genes that might increase susceptibility, but the inheritance pattern is complex and not yet fully understood.

Environmental Impact and Triggers 🌍:

Beyond genetics, environmental factors can play a significant role. Stress, lack of sleep, and certain medications have been identified as potential triggers. 

Understanding these factors can be crucial for managing and preventing seizures.

Neurological Disruptions and Brain Chemistry 🔬:

At the heart of absence seizures is the disruption of normal brain rhythms, which regulate consciousness and coordination. 

An imbalance in neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, could contribute to the onset of these seizures. 

Research into neurotransmitter levels and their impact on neural connectivity continues to shed light on potential underlying mechanisms.

Integrating Knowledge for Better Outcomes

With the insights from genetic, environmental, and neurological research, the medical community aims to develop more targeted and effective treatments. 

Understanding the multifaceted nature of absence seizures can help tailor interventions to individual needs, improving quality of life for those affected.

NOTE: Whatever the case may be, petit mal epilepsy is usually associated with the repetition of electrical signals in the brain and sometimes abnormal levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

How are Petit-Mal Seizures Diagnosed?

Diagnosing absence seizures involves a careful examination by a neurologist through a combination of medical history assessment and specialized tests such as MRI scans and electroencephalography (EEG)

Upon visiting a neurologist, he will ensure to rule out unlikely causes of the symptoms you are having before he goes a step further to diagnose you of absence epilepsy.

He will run an MRI scan. An MRI will take a cross-sectional view of your brain to see the structures and blood vessels therein. Injuries and tumors in any of those can be seen with an MRI.

Electroencephalography can also be used to diagnose absence epilepsy. This test is usually combined with the following; hyperventilation, short but bright lights. Electrodes will be fixed on different parts of your head. You will then be asked to breathe really fast (hyperventilate) or short bursts of light will be shone on your face. 

The effects of these activities will reflect on your brain waves.

These tools help to visualize the brain’s structure and electrical activity, distinguishing absence seizures from other neurological conditions.

Treatment and Managing Absence Seizures

Treatment typically revolves around specific medications like Ethosuximide or Lamotrigine, aiming to balance the brain’s electrical activity. 

Your doctor will have to give you different medications at a low dosage until he finds that which gives the desired result. He can then increase the dose afterward.

Common drugs for their treatment;

  1. Ethosuximide. It is also known as Zarontin
  2. Lamotrigine. Lamictal is its common brand name.
  3. Valproic acid. Its common brand names are Depakene and Stavzor. Valproic acid is not good for you if you are pregnant or planning to already. It increases birth defect risks. 

However, managing absence seizures extends beyond medication, encompassing safety precautions for activities like swimming or driving and educational strategies for those around the affected individual.

Lifestyle Adjustments for Families

Living with absence seizures requires understanding and adjustment, not just for the individual but for the entire family. Creating a supportive environment is crucial:

  • Routine Matters 🕰️: Establish a consistent daily routine to help your child feel secure and reduce anxiety, which can trigger seizures.

  • Safe Spaces 🏠: Modify the home environment to ensure safety during a seizure, such as padding sharp corners or providing a soft area in common spaces.

  • Open Communication 💬: Educate family members and friends about absence seizures, what they look like, and how they can help.

  • School Collaboration 📚: Work closely with your child’s teachers and school staff to implement strategies that accommodate their needs and ensure a supportive learning environment.

Navigating Daily Life

While absence seizures are brief, their impact on daily life can be significant. 

Understanding and adjusting home and school settings are crucial for supporting children affected by this condition. It’s about creating a safe, understanding environment accommodating their unique needs

Here are a few options to consider:

1. Practical Lifestyle Adjustments:

  • Swimming Safety: Always ensure supervision by an adult who is aware of the seizure condition and knows how to provide seizure first aid. Consider swimming only in pools where lifeguards are present.

  • Driving Precautions: Check local laws regarding driving with a seizure condition. Some places require a specific seizure-free period before an individual can drive. Always consult with a healthcare provider to understand personal risks and legal requirements.

2. Educational Strategies for Schools and Families:

  • School Communication: Create a seizure action plan with your child’s school. This should include information on how to recognize their seizures, how to respond, and who to contact in an emergency.

  • Family Awareness: Educate all family members about absence seizures, emphasizing that they are brief and the person will return to normal activities shortly. Teach them how to respond calmly and supportively.

3. Daily Monitoring and Support:

  • Seizure Diary: Keep a detailed record of seizure occurrences, triggers, and durations. This can help in adjusting treatment plans and identifying patterns.

  • Support Networks: Join support groups or online forums for families dealing with epilepsy. Sharing experiences and strategies can provide comfort and practical advice.

 4. Emergency Preparedness:

  • Medical Alert Identification: Consider having the individual wear medical ID jewelry that provides essential information in case of an emergency.

  • First Aid Knowledge: Ensure that caregivers, family members, and close friends are familiar with seizure first aid techniques.

First Aid for Seizures: Immediate Actions

Knowing how to respond when someone is experiencing a seizure can make a significant difference:

  1. Stay Calm 😌: Keep yourself calm and ensure the person having a seizure is in a safe place, away from harmful objects.

  2. Time It ⏱️: Note how long the seizure lasts; this information is vital for medical professionals.

  3. Reassure 🤗: Stay with the person until the seizure ends naturally and they are fully alert. Offer comfort and reassurance as they regain consciousness.

  4. Seek Help 📞: If the seizure lasts longer than five minutes, or another seizure starts soon after the first, call emergency services immediately.

If your journey with absence seizures begins at an even earlier stage, understanding the nuances of infant seizures is crucial.

 For new or expecting parents, recognizing and responding to seizures in newborns can be daunting. We’ve partnered with a trusted resource to extend your knowledge and support network.

👶Discover comprehensive insights on types, causes, and treatments of infant seizures.

What are the Complications?

Though typically not causing physical harm, the recurrent nature of absence seizures can impede learning and social interactions. 

Fortunately, many children outgrow these seizures in their teenage years, leading to a hopeful long-term outlook.

The Epilepsy Foundation has reported that close to 65% of children are healed in their teenage years. That is pretty good news.

The Future with Absence Seizures

While navigating the challenges of absence seizures, especially concerning learning and social interactions, it’s important to hold onto hope and recognize the potential for positive outcomes:

  • Natural Progression: Many children who experience absence seizures witness a notable decrease or complete resolution of episodes as they approach their teenage years. This natural improvement is a testament to the brain’s remarkable ability to adapt and heal, offering a light at the end of the tunnel for many families.


  • Cutting-edge Advancements: The field of neurology is ever-evolving, with ongoing research and technological advancements enhancing the treatment and management of epilepsy. These developments open up new possibilities for individuals with absence seizures, promising better control and even remission.


  • Supportive Education: Schools are increasingly equipped to support children with absence seizures through Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans. These personalized approaches ensure that your child can receive the necessary adjustments to thrive academically despite their condition.


  • Building a Supportive Community: You’re not alone. There’s a growing network of support from organizations, online communities, and local groups dedicated to epilepsy. These resources offer valuable information, emotional support, and a sense of belonging, helping to reduce isolation and empower both individuals and families.


  • Resilience and Growth: The journey with absence seizures can lead to unexpected personal growth, resilience, and a deeper understanding of health and well-being. These life skills are invaluable, contributing to your child’s development into a compassionate, empathetic, and strong individual.

  • Inspirational Stories: Remember, many have walked this path before and have gone on to lead successful, fulfilling lives. Hearing stories of those who have navigated the challenges of absence seizures can provide motivation and hope for what lies ahead.


The journey through understanding and managing absence seizures underscores the importance of awareness, timely diagnosis, and tailored treatment. As we shed light on this often-overlooked condition, our collective support and empathy can significantly improve the lives of those affected.

For further resources and support, visit MBBCH for comprehensive guides and community stories surrounding epilepsy and absence seizures.

Extensive Resources

  1. Epilepsy Foundation: A leading source for information on seizures, epilepsy treatment, and living with epilepsy. They offer a wide range of educational materials and support resources. Visit the Epilepsy Foundation

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Epilepsy Program: Provides data, statistics, and educational resources on epilepsy and seizure disorders. Check out the CDC’s Epilepsy Program

  3. Epilepsy Action: An organization offering advice, resources, and support to anyone affected by epilepsy. Explore Epilepsy Action

  4. International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE): A global organization working toward a world where no person’s life is limited by epilepsy. They provide educational resources and research updates. Learn more from ILAE

  5. American Academy of Neurology: Offers guidelines and articles on the latest research and treatment methods for neurological disorders, including absence seizures. Visit the American Academy of Neurology

  6. Child Neurology Foundation: A site that connects parents and caregivers with resources to support children with neurological conditions. Discover resources at the Child Neurology Foundation

  7. The Danny Did Foundation: Focused on preventing sudden death caused by seizures, offering resources for epilepsy awareness and seizure prediction and detection technologies. Check out The Danny Did Foundation

  8. Epilepsy Society: The UK’s leading charity for epilepsy research and support. Visit the Epilepsy Society

  9. Seizure Tracker: A free app and website designed to help manage seizures by tracking, documenting, and sharing seizure activity. Use Seizure Tracker

  10. Talk About It: A platform created by actor Greg Grunberg in partnership with experts and celebrities to end the stigma and misconceptions surrounding epilepsy. Explore Talk About It

  11. Rare Epilepsy Network (REN): A collaborative network for patients and families affected by rare epilepsies to share information and support. Join the Rare Epilepsy Network

  12. Local Support Groups and Clinics: Don’t forget to check for local epilepsy support groups, clinics, and neurologists specializing in seizure disorders. Connecting with a community that understands can be invaluable.

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