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Sports & Seizures

By Professional Advisory Board Member Kathleen Rieke, M.D.

With the increasing awareness of the physical and mental benefits of regular exercise, many hopeful athletes with epilepsy are wondering if they can play sports, including contact sports.  It is necessary to use common sense when making decisions about sports participation.   As with all sports, proper padding and protective equipment for players is essential for safe competition.

The key to successful sports participation is communication.  Talking with coaches and trainers regarding an athlete’s epilepsy is important.  Understanding an individual’s seizure type and frequency as well as physical abilities is vital when selecting a sport to play.  Coaches and trainers need to know how to deal with a seizure should it occur.  A seizure plan should be in place before participation in sports begins.

Thankfully we can learn from the experiences of high school, college, and professional athletes with epilepsy to answer many questions athletes, coaches, trainers, and parents have about sports and seizures.

Is a person with epilepsy more likely to get a concussion or have a seizure if they get hit in the head?  No.  Concussion and other injuries during contact sports do not seem to occur more frequently in people with seizures.   Seizures after concussion occur with the same frequency in athletes regardless of their history of epilepsy. 

Does physical activity increase the risk of having a seizure?  No.  On rare occasion, physical activity can be a seizure trigger however for most athletes with epilepsy physical activity does not cause seizures.   Interestingly people who have seizures triggered by hyperventilation (breathing hard) typically do not have seizures provoked by vigorous physical activity.

What about the “stress” of competition causing seizures?  Stress is a common seizure trigger for many people, however there does not seem to be a link between competition stress and seizures.   Certainly sleep deprivation before a game could trigger a seizure which is why it is important to maintain a healthy sleep schedule. 

Can I swim?  Swimming is particularly concerning because a seizure in the water is very dangerous.  However with direct supervision of trained lifeguards and coaches there is no reason to avoid swimming.  People with frequent seizures may benefit from a lifejacket or one-on-one supervision.

People with epilepsy have played all major professional sports from hockey and football to soccer and basketball.  Seizures should not hold back any athlete. 

Resources to help athletes, coaches and parents are available at www.efmn.org, www.epilepsy.com and www.epilesyfoundation.org.

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