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.
Some 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, especially reading aloud.
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 can happen at any time from infancy to adulthood, and is more common in males in Southern India and Turkey. Less commonly, people outside these countries 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 and can sometimes be triggered simply by thinking about a particular sound.
Some 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, playing chess, doing mathematical sums, decision making, writing, and solving puzzles. 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.
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 and Honorary Lecturer at Cardiff University for his contribution to this information.
Dr Hamandi has declared no conflict of interest.
This information has been produced under the terms of Epilepsy Action's information quality standards.
- Updated July 2019To be reviewed July 2022