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Are You Having an Absence Seizure or a Partial Complex Seizure?

Petit mal seizures or absence seizures are very often associated with stopping whatever action the person is doing and staring blankly into the air with no response whatsoever to the outside world (which is actually also where the difference with daydreaming is).

However, not all such staring episodes are petit mal seizures. Petit mal was a more general term which is a French term for “minor illness” and today we actually separate it into 2 categories:

  • The regular petit mal which we know and also call absence seizures or staring spells
  • And another category called partial complex seizures, which in turn we called psychomotor seizures and temporal lobe epilepsy.

The actual symptom for the two is the same – loss of reaction to the outside world, staring into the air, a non-present situation, however, their differences are:

  • Are You Having an Absence Seizure or a Partial Complex Seizure

    They are present at different ages. Petit mal or absence seizures start in infants who most of the time grow out of having these seizures, whereas the partial complex seizures can happen almost at any age. So this is a dead giveaway – if someone of age is having a staring spell then he or she is not suffering from petit mal but from a partial complex seizure.

  • The duration differs between the two. Petit mal are much shorter, somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds, however the partial complex seizures last in average about 2 to 3 min.
  • Awareness is actually present in partial complex seizures due to the longer duration and the side effects or consequences following it such as having a déjà vu feeling. In petit mal / absence seizures the child does not remember having the experience and could theoretically never know that he or she is suffering from seizure attacks.
  • Movements during seizure attacks are much more elaborate in the case of partial complex seizures unlike in the case of petit mal, where the person suffering is more or less “frozen”
  • EEG patterns are different for petit mal and partial complex seizures, so it is possible to differentiate the two by such a brain wave monitoring.
  • Lastly the seizure treatments are different for the two. Treatment for petit mal or absence seizures (e.g. ethosuximide) will not work at all for partial complex seizures. Also visa versa, phenytoin and carbamazepine will help those who are suffering from partial complex seizures, but will actually damage a patient who has petit mal seizures. So as you see it is very important to get the correct seizure treatment.

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