Photosensitive epilepsy: causes, diagnosis, treatment, more

Seizures are sudden electrical disturbances in your brain that cause temporary changes in your behavior and movement. Symptoms can vary in severity, ranging from imperceptible to dramatic seizures throughout the body.

The most common cause of seizures is epilepsy. Epilepsy is classified into several types depending on the type of seizures you experience and how they develop.

Somewhere in between 2 and 14 percent of the 3.4 million people with epilepsy in the United States have photosensitive epilepsy. Photosensitive epilepsy occurs when seizures are triggered by flickering or flashing lights.

Keep reading to learn more about photosensitive epilepsy, including potential triggers, symptoms, and prevention tips.

Photosensitive epilepsy is characterized by seizures triggered by a flashing or flickering light. It is more common in children and tends to become less common with age.

Video games and television are the The most common triggers, but natural light sources can set them off as well. For example, some people may have seizures after watching sunlight shine through venetian blinds or through the leaves of a tree. For some people, images with high contrast or swirling colors can also trigger seizures.

Many people don’t know they have photosensitive epilepsy until their first seizure. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, almost all people with photosensitive epilepsy have their first seizure before the age of 20.

About 59 to 75 percent of people with photosensitive epilepsy are women, but men develop more seizures. One theory as to why this is true is that boys can play video games more often.

Photosensitive epilepsy can trigger several types of seizures, including:

Photosensitive epilepsy affects approximately 1 in 4,000 people. It is particularly common in children with generalized genetic epilepsy and certain syndromes such as juvenile myoclonic epilepsy and Jeavon syndrome. Studies have shown that between 30 and 90 percent of people with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy suffer from photosensitive epilepsy.

Photosensitive epilepsy affects people of all ethnic groups. Some studies suggest higher rates among people of European and Middle Eastern descent and lower rates among people of African descent, but comparisons between studies are difficult.

The exact cause of photosensitive epilepsy remains poorly understood, even though many common triggers have been identified. Genetics appear to play a role in the development of photosensitive epilepsy. People with unique variations of the CHD2 gene have higher rates of photosensitive epilepsy than people in the general population.

Studies suggest that gamma waves that oscillate 30 to 80 times in the visual cortex may generate seizures in people with light-induced epilepsy, but more research is needed. Other research indicates that there are changes in the connections between different areas of the brain in people with photosensitive epilepsy.

Watching television and playing video games are the two most common triggers for photosensitive epilepsy. You are more likely to develop seizures when exposed to brighter light sources.

Seizures most often occur in the presence of flashing lights 15 to 25 times per second, but the exact frequency varies from person to person. Red light is more likely to cause seizures than blue and white lights.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, the following can trigger seizures:

  • quickly changing flickering images on computer screens or television
  • video games containing rapid flashes of light
  • strobe lights
  • sunlight flickering on the water or flickering through trees or blinds
  • very contrasting visual patterns
  • possibly flashing lights on emergency vehicles

What is unlikely to be a photosensitive trigger?

Triggers can vary from person to person, but here are some examples of unlikely photosensitive triggers:

  • ACL screens
  • mobile phones and devices with small screens
  • dimly lit screens
  • Interactive whiteboards
  • lights that flash less than three times per second

When people think of seizures, they often think of tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures that cause unconsciousness and uncontrollable muscle spasms. However, some types of seizures can be so mild that they are barely noticeable.

The symptoms of photosensitive epilepsy vary depending on the type of seizure you have, but the symptoms may include:

A doctor can diagnose you with epilepsy after at least two seizures. To make the diagnosis, they will review your symptoms. They may want to talk to someone who saw you having a seizure because you may have been unconscious.

The doctor will also perform a neurological exam during which he will check your reflexes, muscle strength and posture.

An electroencephalogram (EEG) is often used in the diagnostic process. An EEG is a machine that measures electrical activity in your brain and can record unusual patterns of electrical activity that can be a sign of epilepsy.

Imaging techniques such as MRIs and CT scans can be used to look for structural problems in your brain.

The main treatment for photosensitive epilepsy is taking anti-epileptic drugs and avoiding triggers.


According to the Epilepsy Society, photosensitive epilepsy often responds well to anti-epileptic drugs. You can work with your doctor to find the best medicine and dosage for you.

Valproate is the preferred first-line drug for video game-related seizures. Studies have shown that it is effective in preventing seizures in about half of the people.

Prevent or avoid seizures

If you are sensitive to flashing or flickering lights, you may be able to prevent seizures by:

  • avoid exposure to flashing light, and when this is not possible, close an eye and looking away from the light source
  • watching TV in a well-lit room to reduce contrast
  • using LCD screens
  • avoiding watching TV for long periods of time
  • sitting as far away from the television as possible
  • avoid video games when you are tired
  • taking frequent breaks when you’re on the computer
  • avoiding places where strobe lights are used, such as clubs and dances

It is very important to see a doctor if you or a loved one is having a seizure for the first time. A doctor can help you determine the cause of your seizure and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

It is also important to call 911 or your local emergency services if you are with someone who:

  • has a seizure lasting more than 3 minutes
  • does not wake up after his seizure
  • has repeated seizures
  • is pregnant and has a seizure

The outlook for photosensitive epilepsy varies among people, but is generally good.

Photosensitive epilepsy is usually easily treated with medication and by avoiding triggers. On A quarter of people stop having photosensitive seizures by the age of 30.

Photosensitive epilepsy occurs when you experience seizures after exposure to flashing or flickering lights. It is most often triggered while watching TV or playing video games, but it can also be triggered by natural light and static images with high contrast patterns.

If you think you have had a photosensitive seizure, it is important to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and evaluation. Avoiding triggers is the only treatment needed for some people, but a doctor may recommend taking medication to control the seizures.

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About Chris Y. Camp

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