Concussions and the risk of post-traumatic epilepsy
A concussion is a complex pathophysiological process affecting the brain, induced by traumatic biomechanical forces. Immediately following a concussion, an athlete is usually advised physical and cognitive rest till post-concussion symptoms abate. The athlete then enters a stepwise return to play protocol. Premature return to play risks a second concussion, second impact syndrome, exacerbation and persistence of post-concussive symptoms.
Sports and Epilepsy
Sport is important not only in normal healthy populations, but also in persons with medical illness, physical or mental disabilities. Active participation in sports is beneficial physically and psychologically. The main concern in sports for persons with epilepsy is safety.
Why are people with epilepsy restricted from some sports?
Rationale is that the occurrence of an untimely seizure during certain sporting event has the potential for causing substantial injury and bodily harm both to the patient with epilepsy as well as fellow athletes and even spectators.
Example: if a person with epilepsy has a generalized convulsion or a complex partial seizure while skydiving: he shall not be able to deploy his parachute and a fatal accident can occur.
:a person with epilepsy taking part in an automobile racing event suffers a seizure while making a bend at speeds in excess of 100mph
:a person with epilepsy suffers a seizure while taking part in a swimming meet.
:a person with epilepsy suffers a seizure while bicycling
:a person with epilepsy suffers a seizure while horseback riding
:a person with epilepsy suffers a seizure while skiing down a steep hill
:even things more mundane such as having a seizure while running on a treadmill, while playing tennis, while jogging outside have the potential to cause bodily harm to the patient and others.
Why are people with epilepsy restricted from some sports?
Rationale is that repeated injury to the head (concussions) during some sports could potentially exacerbate seizures.
Example: a person with epilepsy who is indulging in contact sports such as boxing, karate, kick-boxing, muay thai boxing, American football, ice-hockey, wrestling, judo
But are these restrictions and fears actually based on scientific evidence or are they unfounded? Which sports are safe and which are not? Could indulgence in some sports make seizures potentially worse Vs. could some sports actually be beneficial for people with epilepsy (physically and psychologically)? Can vigorous physical exercise provoke seizures?
Exercise and seizures
One reason that people with epilepsy have been traditionally restricted from certain sports is the fear both in the patient and the treating physician that exercise especially aerobic exercise may exacerbate seizures. Some studies have shown an increase in interictal discharges during or after exercise. Most frequently these patients have generalized epilepsies. At least some frontal lobe and temporal lobe seizures are clearly precipitated or at times solely occur during exercise suggests that these are a form of reflex epilepsies. A number of physiologic mechanism by which seizures may be provoked by exercise have been postulated. These include hyperventilation with resultant hypocarbia and alkalosis induced by exercise. Another possible mechanism which is postulated to cause exercise induced seizures is hypoglycemia. This usually causes seizures after exercise in diabetic patients. Other mechanisms which have been postulated for exercise triggered seizures include the physical and psychological stress of competitive sports and potential changes in anti-epileptic drug metabolism. Exercise is a complex behavior and involves not such the motor system and the motor cortex but also involves other domains such as attention, concentration, vigilance and presumably some limbic networks which mediate motivation, aggression and competitiveness. Hence it is possible that patients who have temporal or frontal lobe epilepsy may on rare occasions have seizures triggered by exercise.
There is some limited evidence that exercise may in fact be protective and have physical, physiological and psychological benefits in patients with epilepsy. Electroencephalographic studies have shown that inter-ictal epileptiform discharges either remain unchanged or may decrease during exercise so there is some hint that exercise may actually raise the seizure threshold. Regular exercise also influences neuronal and hippocampal plasticity by upregulation of neurotropic factors. There is further evidence to suggest that regular physical exercise can improve the quality of life, reduce anxiety and depression and improve seizure control in patients with chronic epilepsy.
What sports are off limits for people with epilepsy?
No sport is completely off limit for a patient with epilepsy. Key though is proper supervision to reduce the potential for injury. There are some sports such as skydiving, automobile racing, swimming in the open seas and horseback riding which should be avoided by patients with epilepsy. Other sports can be enjoyed by patients with epilepsy but one should remember that they all have the potential to result in bodily harm if seizures occur when the patient is not supervised or if he is not wearing protective head and body gear.
Concussion and seizures (post traumatic epilepsy): what is the link?
The link between concussion (closed head trauma) and seizures has been and continues to be closely looked at. The fear of concussions (minor head trauma) making seizures worse is the prime reason why people with epilepsy are discouraged from some sports such as tackle football, ice-hockey, boxing, mixed martial arts and wrestling. The human skull is quite resilient and the closed head trauma has to be significant for it to result in seizures. Usually a concussion which results in prolonged loss of consciousness (some authors say more than 30 minutes) is graded as a significant head trauma. Minor bumps and bruises to the head do not cause seizures, do not increase the risk of future seizures and more importantly do not make chronic epilepsy worse. Seizures may occur immediately following a severe closed head trauma. Immediate post traumatic seizures by definition occur within 24 hours of the injury. They have also been referred to as impact seizures. Early post traumatic epilepsy refers to seizures which occur about a week to 6 months after the injury. Seizures may occur as far out at 2 to 5 years after head trauma (late post traumatic epilepsy). Factors which increase the risk of post traumatic seizures/ epilepsy include severity of trauma, prolonged loss of consciousness (more than 24 hours), penetrating head injury, intra or extraaxial hemorrhage, depressed skull fracture and early post traumatic seizures.
Patients with epilepsy should be encouraged to exercise and take part in sports. My personal feeling is that no sport should be off limits to them with the exception of maybe sky-diving, river rafting and boxing. The goal should be exercising and playing sports safely. Walking, running, cycling and yoga are great exercises which can be indulged in with little to no risks. I advise all my patients with epilepsy (especially those with poorly controlled epilepsy) to wear a Medic Alert bracelet or carry a card in their wallet. This is of immense help were a seizure to occur in the field (as for example when a patient is jogging or cycling and is not in the immediate vicinity of his or her home). Low risk recreational sports such as walking or running usually do not need a one is to one supervision if seizures are well controlled by history. Team sports such as volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball are popular sports which carry a low risk of injury. For cycling I advise my patients to wear a helmet and have their bikes fitted with lights and reflectors. I also advise them to keep off from the busy city streets. “you do not want to have a seizure at the wrong place and at the wrong time”. Swimming is a great way to keep fit and also to meet and make friends. I feel many patients with epilepsy are discouraged from swimming due to an irrational fear of caregivers and physicians of drowning. I advise my patients not to swim alone. Most of the city pools have life guards and a polite request to them to keep a watch out goes a long way in reassuring both the patient and the caregivers. Swimming in the open seas is more risky. I advise my patients to swim close to the beach under the watchful eyes of a life guard. Also having a buddy around helps, preferably someone strong enough to pull the patient out of the water if a seizure was to occur. The option of wearing a life jacket is under utilized.
Final thoughts (a patient’s perspective)
These are the thoughts of a young patient of mine:
“I have always been a very active person and love playing sports such as Tennis, Yoga, Running etc, and I always try to pursue my dreams and not let things get in the way, but being epileptic, it is sometime hard to not worry about things happening. Whenever I play sports I get hot easily (face turns purple) and in the back of my head I find myself always hoping that nothing happens that would cause me to have a seizure. I ran my first half marathon two years ago, and in the back of my head there is always the thought of something happening, so I started to motivate myself by saying “I can do this, you will be fine.” My father taught me when I was younger that I can choose to let it hold me back or make the most of life! Many people consider epilepsy a disability, but I try not to because I don’t let it hold me back.”
Nitin K Sethi, MD, MBBS, FAAN Assistant Professor of Neurology New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center