An absence seizure is the term given to a type of seizure involving staring spells. This type of seizure is a brief (usually less than 15 seconds) disturbance of brain function due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
Seizure - petit mal; Seizure - absence; Petit mal seizure; Epilepsy - absence seizure
Absence seizures occur most often in people under age 20, usually in children ages 6 to 12.
In some cases, the seizures are triggered by flashing lights or when the person breathes faster and more deeply than usual (hyperventilates).
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).
Most absence seizures last only a few seconds. They often involve staring episodes. 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 absence 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.
Right after the seizure, the person is usually:
Unaware of the seizure
Specific symptoms of typical absence seizures may include:
Changes in muscle activity, such as no movement, hand fumbling, fluttering eyelids, lip smacking, chewing
Some absence seizures begin slower and last longer. These are called atypical absence seizures. Symptoms are similar to regular absence seizures, but muscle activity changes may be more noticeable.
Exams and Tests
The doctor will perform a physical exam. This will include a detailed look at the brain and nervous system.
An EEG (electroencephalogram) will be done to check the electrical activity in the brain. People with seizures often have abnormal electrical activity seen on this test. In some cases, the test shows the area in the brain where the seizures start. The brain may appear normal after a seizure or between seizures.
Blood tests may also be ordered to check for other health problems that may be causing the seizures.
Head CT or MRI scan may be done to find the cause and location of the problem in the brain.
Treatment for absence seizures includes medications, changes in lifestyle for adults and children, such as activity and diet, and sometimes surgery. Your doctor can tell you more about these options.
Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.