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What is Photosensitive Epilepsy? A Brief Guide

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Photosensitive epilepsy is a unique kind of epilepsy that falls under the umbrella of epileptic disorders. It’s characterized by seizures triggered by specific visual stimuli such as flashing lights or contrasting light and dark patterns. This condition brings its own set of symptoms, triggers, and management approaches, which differentiate it from other types of epilepsy. Understanding the defining characteristics of photosensitive epilepsy is essential, including recognizing its prevalent symptoms, identifying common triggers, and knowing the diagnostic tools and management strategies available.

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Defining Photosensitive Epilepsy

What Is Photosensitive Epilepsy?

Photosensitive epilepsy is a type of epilepsy. In simple terms, it means that certain kinds of visual things, like flashing lights, strobe lights, or quickly changing images, can cause people with this condition to have seizures.

Imagine watching a video with lots of fast, blinking lights. For someone with photosensitive epilepsy, those blinking lights might cause their brain to react with a seizure. A seizure might make a person’s body move without control, or it could cause a kind of “mind blank” where the person seems absent for a while.

What makes photosensitive epilepsy different from other types of epilepsy is that it’s closely linked to what a person sees. Other things, like lack of sleep or stress, might trigger other kinds of epilepsy. But with photosensitive epilepsy, the primary triggers are visual, like specific patterns or lights.

Prevalence and Demographics

Photosensitive epilepsy is not as common as some other types of epilepsy. It’s more often found in children and teenagers. As people grow older, they are less likely to have seizures caused by photosensitive epilepsy. This could be because the brain changes as people age, making them less sensitive to the visual triggers that can cause seizures in photosensitive epilepsy.

Symptoms and Triggers

Identifying Symptoms

People with photosensitive epilepsy may show different symptoms when exposed to certain visual stimuli. These symptoms might vary from person to person, but some are more common. Here are some of the typical symptoms:

  • Myoclonic Jerks: Sudden, quick jolts of the muscles.
  • Absence Seizures: Short periods where the person appears ‘zoned out’ or not responsive.
  • Tonic-Clonic Seizures: Strong seizures involving muscle stiffness and jerking.

Common Triggers

Certain visual elements are more likely to trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy. These triggers are usually things people might see in their daily lives. Here are some common triggers:

  • Flashing Lights: Like those in video games or during emergency vehicle sirens.
  • Specific Patterns or Images: Patterns such as stripes or checks that sharply contrast.
  • Quick Changes in Light: Like sunlight flickering through trees as one drives or walks.

Knowing these triggers can help people with epilepsy avoid situations that might lead to a seizure and is crucial for managing the condition effectively. Remember, every person with photosensitive epilepsy might not react to every trigger, and some might have unique triggers that need to be identified and managed.

Diagnosis and Testing

Diagnosing photosensitive epilepsy is a systematic process that involves multiple steps to understand the individual’s medical condition thoroughly. Here is a breakdown of how the diagnosis usually works:

1. Reviewing Medical History:

  • Doctors will ask about the patient’s medical history, including previous seizures or neurological issues.
  • Questions might be asked about the circumstances in which seizures have occurred, focusing on the involvement of visual stimuli like flashing lights or specific patterns.

2. Physical and Neurological Examination:

  • A physical check-up is often conducted to understand the overall health status.
  • A neurological examination might assess brain and nerve function.

3. Electroencephalogram (EEG) With Photic Stimulation:

  • An EEG test records the electrical activity of the brain.
  • During the test, lights may be flashed in a pattern (photic stimulation) to see if it causes any unusual brain activity or triggers a seizure.
  • It helps in identifying whether visual stimuli can cause a reaction in the brain that is consistent with a seizure.

4. Response to Visual Stimuli:

  • Observing the patient’s response to various visual stimuli can provide vital clues.
  • Specific patterns or lights might be used in a controlled setting to understand what triggers the seizures.

5. Further Testing:

  • Other tests, like MRI or CT scans, might be used to rule out other causes or to get a detailed view of the brain’s structure.

Having a structured approach to diagnosing photosensitive epilepsy ensures that the condition is understood well and an appropriate management plan can be developed. It also helps in distinguishing it from other types of epilepsy or medical conditions.

Management and Prevention Strategies

Effective Management Strategies

Managing photosensitive epilepsy involves different strategies to help prevent seizures and make life easier for people with the condition. Here are ways to manage it effectively:

  • Avoiding Triggers: Avoid things that usually cause seizures, like certain flashing lights or patterns.
  • Adjusting Screens: Use screens that are easier on the eyes. For example, some computer monitors have settings that reduce flickering.
  • Taking Medication: Doctors might give medicine that helps control seizures. It’s essential to take it as advised.

Preventing Seizures

Preventing seizures generally involves avoiding the things that trigger them. Here are some practical tips:

  • Watch TV Smartly: When watching TV or playing video games, ensure the room has good lighting. It makes the screen’s light less harsh. Don’t sit too close to the screen, and take regular breaks.
  • Choose Safe Screens: Use TVs or monitors with high refresh rates. They are less likely to cause problems. Consider using a screen filter that can reduce glare and flickering.
  • Wear Sunglasses: In bright sunlight, consider wearing sunglasses that reduce glare. Polarized sunglasses can be particularly helpful.
  • Be Mindful of Environment: Pay attention to lighting and patterns around you. Try to avoid places or situations where the lighting feels uncomfortable.

These strategies can help in managing and preventing seizures in everyday situations, making daily activities safer and more comfortable for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Remember, a health care professional’s advice should be sought for personalized management strategies based on the individual’s health status.

Getty image by Maria Ponomariova

Originally published: November 3, 2023
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