Saturday, April 28, 2012

Epilepsy and Sexuality

Sexuality is a normal part of a person’s life, and the expression of it can serve as a form of physical relief, a method to cope with stress, and a way to connect emotionally to another individual. The way in which each of us experiences sexuality differs from one person to another, but only more recently has it been fully realized the extent to which physical and psychological problems can alter or diminish one’s sexual expression. This can significantly negatively impact on associated sexual relationships.
Many medical conditions are commonly recognized for affecting sex, including: diabetes, hormone deficiency, and heart problems. These conditions affect a large percentage of the population and are studied and tested with great fervor. However, there are many more that continue to fly under the radar and (in particular) Epilepsy is one that is greatly misunderstood.

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of the central nervous system that specifically affects the brain. It is characterized by the tendency to suffer seizures, which occur when a strong surge of electrical activity gets sent through the all, or part, of the brain. These electrical bursts temporarily upset the electrical balance of the brain and cause out of sync signals to be sent throughout the body.

Who has Epilepsy?

Epilepsy most often starts in childhood, but can develop at any time throughout a person’s life. It is a neurological disorder that affects both men and women – though men are slightly more likely to develop it. The condition can even occur in animals. One in every 100 North Americans has active epilepsy, and according to the Canadian Epilepsy Alliance, “next to migraine headaches, it is the most common neurological disorder there is.”


Symptoms of Epilepsy vary widely from person to person, and its effects on an individual's mind, body and lifestyle can range from insignificant and mild - to extremely serious and debilitating. The disorder is most commonly associated with convulsions, but what many don’t realize (particularly as it relates to dating and sex) is that a number of factors - such as how many cells fire and the area of the brain involved – means that misfired signals can cause any number of symptoms to occur, including:
  • Staring (because the brain prevents the person from understanding what they’re seeing).
  • An inability to remain standing and/or stumbling.
  • Repeated movements such as lip smacking, or jerking movements of the arms and legs.
  • An alteration in behavior, consciousness, perception and/or sensation.

Epilepsy and Sex

Given the broad range of symptoms associated with the disorder, it probably comes as no surprise that Epilepsy can make life a lot more complicated, especially when it comes to meeting new people and having sex. Although the majority of people contending with Epilepsy have normal sex lives and don’t suffer from sexual difficulties, the unpredictable nature of the disorder can definitely cause problems for many.
Epilepsy’s effect on sex can be due to symptoms of the condition itself, the drugs used to control the illness, or a psychosomatic response to the possibility of it interfering with sex...

    Drugs used to control the disorder

    Drug treatments have come a long way in helping those with Epilepsy manage the disorder, but they also come along with some nasty side effects. Finding the right balance of seizure control while minimizing drug side effects is ideal, but it may take years (if ever) to find the optimal match.
    Drugs used to treat the disorder (e.g. phenobarbital, carbamazepine, valproic acid, and diphenylhydantoin) can cause any number of the following to occur: partial to extreme fatigue; depressed sexual response & decreased libido; Erectile Dysfunction among men / Excessive Dryness problems among women; and difficulty in achieving orgasm.
    Epilepsy medications can severely interfere with the Birth Control Pill (making it ineffective/unreliable). Unfortunately, some family M.D.s do not know this - or discuss this with their patients.
    In addition to the heavy burden that seizure medications may impose on a person’s physical and mental well-being, seizures themselves can take a significant toll on a person’s energy levels and state of mind.

    The condition itself

    Seizures are commonly associated with ‘triggers’ such as flashing or flickering lights, though any number of stimuli can cause them to occur, such as stress, anxiety or tiredness. Despite efforts made to control the condition with medication, there are often times when drugs can only provide partial relief from symptoms. Thus, an epileptic person still has to contend with the possibility that the disorder may interfere with all aspects of their life.
    Both men and women with epilepsy sometimes worry that sexual activity may act as a seizure trigger. However, research does not support this belief except in extremely rare cases. But again, Epilepsy is an unpredictable condition, and there may be times when sexual intercourse in stressed situations (with a new partner, for example) can trigger an epileptic state.


    People with epilepsy are often concerned as to whether their seizures will become an issue during sex, or worry that the drugs used to the control symptoms may affect their performance. Sufferers may also fear a negative response from their sex partners or, even worse, experience discrimination or rejection.
    On the other hand, a person with an epileptic partner could create an opposite problem, by acting over protectively or avoiding certain sexual activities for fear of triggering an episode. This type of behavior can create a lot of frustration within an epileptic person’s mind - and if stressed enough, may create an emotional and physical state that actually leads to seizures.
    Though anyone can suffer as result of feeling vulnerable or self-conscious, many people with epilepsy notice that strong feelings and emotions such as these actually affect the frequency and severity of their seizures. Additionally, feelings of fear can lead to low levels of sexual desire, difficulties in becoming sexually aroused, or painful intercourse.

Final Thought

There are many questions still unanswered about the cause and effective treatment of Epilepsy, and given the dozens of variations of the disorder, no one remedy will apply to everyone with the condition. In the meantime, finding effective ways to cope with the disorder’s psychological impact, and engaging with a partner who is patient, will help those dealing with it to discover ways to improve matters both in and out of the bedroom.
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