Damping the odds that fireworks will spark seizures

Jul 03, 2007

Bright light that flickers frequently or rapidly, like a strobe light, can trigger seizures in some people – a phenomenon documented in nearly 700 children who were hospitalized in Japan 10 years ago after watching a Pokemon cartoon. The condition is much on the mind of a neurologist specializing in seizure disorders as the 4th of July holiday with all its fireworks approaches.

While Giuseppe Erba, M.D., is not aware of any instance where fireworks have actually caused a person to have a seizure, the physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center says that a few people who are extremely sensitive to flashing light might be at risk during holiday celebrations this week, and he recommends a few precautions.

Like many seizure specialists, Erba treats patients with photosensitivity – an extreme sensitivity to bright, rapidly flickering light that is experienced by some patients with epilepsy and a few otherwise healthy people. In 2004 he led an international committee on behalf of the Epilepsy Foundation that established standards for the video gaming industry to help prevent seizures among gamers, and recently he explained how an animation of a diver used last month to publicize the upcoming 2012 Olympic games in London can cause seizures.

In most people, the brain is able to handle the flood of visual information presented by rapidly flashing lights and repeating patterns. But in some people, the extra stimulation floods the brain and sends cells called neurons into a frenzy in which they fire uncontrollably, causing seizures. The phenomenon can occur when people watch TV, play video games, dance at a concert or club, or even ride in a car, when they are exposed to rapidly flickering light coming through the trees as the car moves along.

Those at risk include people with epilepsy and relatives of people who have been diagnosed by a doctor as being photosensitive. Erba said that the phenomenon tends to run in families, and children in such families are most vulnerable. Doctors estimate that about three to five percent of people with epilepsy may be photosensitive, although they may never have a seizure caused by lights unless they are exposed to strong, provocative stimuli. As a result, many are at risk without knowing it, Erba said.

For the Fourth of July holiday, Erba offers these tips for high-risk people:

-- Cover one eye during the final barrage of fireworks. That reduces the amount of visual information flooding the brain and is usually enough to prevent seizures among photosensitive patients, while still allowing them to enjoy the fireworks.
-- Don’t get too close to a big fireworks display. People who are sensitive to light should keep bright flickering lights like fireworks to less than half of what their eyes see at any one moment.
-- Get your sleep. Fatigue and sleep deprivation can make people more susceptible.
-- Patients with epilepsy should be sure to take their medication on schedule before viewing fireworks. One common medication, divalproex sodium, also known as Depakote and available in generic form as well, reduces photosensitivity in people with epilepsy very effectively, Erba said. Among people with epilepsy, photosensitivity is most common in adolescents with a form known as juvenile myoclonic epilepsy.
-- Anyone who begins to feel their body jerking while watching fireworks should cover both eyes immediately. Unlike most seizures, Erba said, those caused by photosensitivity can be stopped once they’ve begun by cutting off the visual input within one or two seconds.


“The message certainly is not to discourage people from watching fireworks and enjoying the displays,” said Erba, a professor of Neurology and of Pediatrics who treats seizure patients at Strong Memorial Hospital and at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong. “But people at risk should take proper precautions. Children are much more photosensitive, so parents of children in families who have relatives that have had seizures or epilepsy should be extra vigilant.”

Source: University of Rochester Medical Center

Explore further: 'Ice Bucket Challenge' passes $100 mn mark

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

China's Alibaba plans IPO for week of September 8

9 hours ago

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba plans to hold its initial public offering on the US stock market the week of September 8, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, citing a person familiar with the matter.

Tablet sales slow as PCs find footing

9 hours ago

Tablets won't eclipse personal computers as fast as once thought, according to studies by market tracker International Data Corporation (IDC).

Startups offer banking for smartphone users

9 hours ago

The latest banks are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Startups, such as Moven and Simple, offer banking that's designed specifically for smartphones, enabling users to track their spending on the go. Some things ...

Recommended for you

Cold cash just keeps washing in from ALS challenge

Aug 28, 2014

In the couple of hours it took an official from the ALS Association to return a reporter's call for comment, the group's ubiquitous "ice bucket challenge" had brought in a few million more dollars.

Medtronic spends $350M on another European deal

Aug 27, 2014

U.S. medical device maker Medtronic is building stronger ties to Europe, a couple months after announcing a $42.9 billion acquisition that involves moving its main executive offices across the Atlantic, where it can get a ...

Mind over matter for people with disabilities

Aug 26, 2014

People with serious physical disabilities are unable to do the everyday things that most of us take for granted despite having the will – and the brainpower – to do so. This is changing thanks to European ...

User comments : 0