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Absence seizures (previously called petit-mal)

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Absence seizures

Absence seizures (previously called petit-mal)  are more common in children than in adults, and can happen very frequently.

Typical absences

During a typical absence the person becomes blank and unresponsive for a few seconds. They may appear to be 'daydreaming'. The seizures may not be noticed because they are brief.

The person may stop what they are doing, look blank and stare, or their eyelids might blink or flutter. They will not respond to what is happening around them. If they are walking they may carry on walking, but will not be aware of what they are doing.

Atypical absences

Atypical absences are similar to typical absences (see above) but they start and end more slowly, and last a bit longer than typical absences. As they also include a change in muscle tone, where the limbs go limp or floppy, some people may fall.

Information produced: June 2020

Myoclonic seizures

Myoclonic means ‘muscle jerk’. Muscle jerks are not always due to epilepsy (for example, some people have them as they fall asleep). Myoclonic seizures are brief but can happen in clusters (many happening close together in time) and often happen shortly after waking.

Tonic and atonic seizures

In an atonic seizure (or 'drop attack') the person’s muscles suddenly relax and they become floppy. If they are standing they often fall, usually forwards, and may injure the front of their head or face. Like tonic seizures, atonic seizures tend to be brief and happen without warning. With both tonic and atonic seizures people usually recover quickly, apart from possible injuries.

Seizure types

In March 2017 the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE), a group of the world's leading epilepsy professionals, introduced a new method to group seizures. This gives doctors a more accurate way to describe a person's seizures, and helps them to prescribe the most appropriate treatments.

Seizures leaflet

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