Absence Seizure

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Seizures are caused by sudden, large discharges of electrical impulses from brain cells. Absence seizures were formerly called petit mal seizures. The person briefly loses awareness of his or her environment.

What is going on in the body?

Neurons are the nerve cells within the brain. They coordinate movement, thinking, personality, and sensory activities. Neurons communicate with each other through electrical discharges. A seizure occurs when excitable neurons give off abnormal electrical discharges. There are different types of seizures, depending on where the excitable neurons are located. Epilepsy is diagnosed when an individual has a repeating pattern of seizures.

Seizures are divided into two main types: generalized and partial. Generalized epilepsy affects the entire brain. The person loses consciousness or awareness of the environment. Partial epilepsy affects only one part of the brain. The individual usually doesn’t lose consciousness. Absence seizures are a generalized type of seizure.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Absence seizures may be caused by many diseases and conditions. Some of the diseases that can cause them are as follows:

  • brain tumors
  • congenital diseases or conditions
  • hereditary diseases
  • infections involving the brain, including encephalitis and bacterial meningitis
  • stroke
  • transient ischemic attack, which is also called a mini-stroke
  • Certain conditions that can cause seizures include:

  • abnormalities in the blood vessels of the brain
  • chromosomal abnormalities
  • craniotomy, which is brain surgery
  • head injury
  • injury during birth or in the uterus
  • Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    Absence seizures have the following characteristics:

  • include small movements of the face or eyes
  • involve staring into space
  • last from a few seconds to a minute
  • may include dulling of consciousness
  • most commonly appear in children
  • The person may have several absence seizures in rapid succession.

    Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    Diagnosis of epilepsy begins with a medical history and physical exam. The healthcare provider will ask about contributing illnesses or injuries. An electroencephalogram, or EEG, will be ordered. An EEG measures electrical activity within the brain. If a seizure occurs during the EEG, the abnormal activity can be detected. A normal EEG does not rule out seizures. Other tests that may be ordered include:

  • blood tests to look for diseases or conditions causing the seizures
  • cranial CT scan to look for abnormalities in the brain
  • cranial MRI to provide a closer look at brain structures
  • positron emission tomography, or PET scans, to identify the abnormal brain area
  • Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the condition?

    Damage to a fetus during pregnancy and delivery may increase the risk of seizures. Women with high-risk pregnancies should be monitored closely.

    Many childhood infections can be prevented by appropriate vaccination. Following sports safety guidelines for children, adolescents, and adults can prevent some injuries.

    Many times, there is no way to prevent epilepsy. Once it is diagnosed, individuals can lower their risk of seizures by taking the following steps:

  • avoiding excess alcohol
  • avoiding illegal drugs, especially marijuana and cocaine
  • getting enough sleep
  • limiting intake of stimulants such as caffeine
  • recognizing and avoiding known factors that trigger their own seizures
  • seeking prompt treatment for fever and illness
  • taking all medicines as prescribed
  • What are the long-term effects of the condition?

    Seizures can lead to physical injury from falling. Epilepsy may interfere with school or work.

    What are the risks to others?

    Absence seizures are not contagious and pose no risk to others.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    Medicines used to treat epilepsy are known as anticonvulsants. Common anticonvulsants used for absence seizures include:

  • clonazepam, also known as Frisium
  • ethosuxamide, also known as Zarontin
  • lamotrigine, also known as Lamictal
  • topiramate, also known as Topamax
  • valproate sodium, also known as Epilim
  • A person with epilepsy may be embarrassed or depressed. Counseling about the condition may help the individual and the family. Support groups exist for those with epilepsy.

    What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Medicines used to treat epilepsy may cause drowsiness, dental problems, and allergic reactions. Many anticonvulsants decrease the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.

    What happens after treatment for the condition?

    Many substances interfere with the action of anticonvulsants. These include over-the-counter medicines, prescription medicines, and herbal remedies. Individuals with seizures should consult their healthcare provider before taking any new products.

    Treatment of epilepsy is lifelong. If seizures are well-controlled, the individual may live a normal life. However, some people may have significant disabilities from their epilepsy.

    Individuals with seizures may be able to drive if they remain seizure-free. Laws governing driving vary from place to place. People with seizures can participate in most activities of regular life. They may be advised to avoid hazardous activities. Federal law prohibits discrimination in employment. There are also laws precluding people with epilepsy from certain jobs, such as commercial trucking.

    A person with seizures should use an identification bracelet or card informing others of the condition.

    How is the condition monitored?

    Blood is tested regularly to monitor the levels of anticonvulsants. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.

    Article type: xmedgeneral