Reflex epilepsies are uncommon. They are epilepsies where all or nearly all seizures happen as a result of a specific trigger.
Triggers can be thought of as external, for example looking at flashing or flickering lights or hearing specific music. Or they can be internal, for example thinking hard about something in particular, like mathematical sums.
Different types of reflex epilepsies
Photosensitive epilepsy is a type of epilepsy where flickering or flashing lights, and sometimes strong patterns (usually stripes), trigger seizures. It affects around three in every 100 people with epilepsy.
Reading epilepsy usually starts in the teenage years. In this type of epilepsy, reading triggers brief jerks (myoclonic seizures) around the jaw and mouth. If you carry on reading when the jerks are happening, there is a risk you may go on to have a tonic-clonic seizure. Certain types of reading may be more likely to trigger seizures. These include reading aloud, reading complex texts and reading foreign languages.
Hot water epilepsy
In hot water epilepsy, seizures are triggered by being in hot water (such as in a bath), or by having hot water quickly thrown over your head or body. It is most common in older children and teenagers in Southern India. Less commonly, people outside India may have this type of epilepsy.
People with musicogenic epilepsy have seizures triggered by hearing certain sounds, usually music. Some people only have a seizure when they listen to a specific musical track or tune. Other people have reported having seizures triggered by a particular type of music, or by music played on a particular instrument. Seizures in this type of reflex epilepsy are usually focal seizures.
Other types of reflex epilepsy
Researchers have written about many other things that can trigger seizures in people with reflex epilepsy. These include simple things, such as being touched or tapped, or being startled by a sudden noise. They also include more complex things, such as tooth brushing, eating, playing chess, doing mathematical sums, writing, solving puzzles and so on. These types of epilepsy are very rare and are often the subject of clinical and scientific interest. If you have one of these epilepsies, the same, specific, thing always triggers your seizures.
There are many different types of epileptic seizure. Any type of seizure can happen in reflex epilepsy, but generalised seizures, particularly myoclonic seizures, appear to be most common.
Treatment for reflex epilepsy
Wherever possible, you should try to avoid the thing that triggers your seizures. But if this is difficult, or you also have seizures that don’t have a trigger, you may want to consider taking epilepsy medicines.
Research into reflex epilepsies
Despite the fact that reflex epilepsies are rare, there is a lot of scientific interest in them. Researchers want to find out why a specific activity or stimulus can trigger an epileptic seizure. Research also continues into why certain things can trigger seizures in some people, but not in others.
If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. If you are unable to access the internet, please contact our Epilepsy Action freephone Helpline on 0808 800 5050.
Epilepsy Action would like to thank Dr K Hamandi, Consultant Neurologist at University Hospital of Wales, for contributing to this information.
Dr K Hamandi has no conflict of interest to declare.
This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.
- Updated October 2015To be reviewed October 2018