Article: Sex, Relationships, and Epilepsy

This month is National Epilepsy Awareness Month, or #NEAM2017 if social media is your jam.

Epilepsy is something that a lot of us are aware of but, when it comes down to it, many of us know very little about. Because of this, suddenly encountering it in a partner – either a romantic partner or a purely sexual one – can provoke a sense of apprehension, uncertainty, or sometimes even fear. This is especially the case if witnessing a seizure.

So, in order to help raise awareness, I thought I’d briefly go through some key epilepsy facts before looking at how epilepsy might impact sex and relationships and what everyone can do to be a more epilepsy aware partner.

Let’s get this information bus rolling!

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition that effects the brain in a certain way that causes seizures. As it stands, it is the fourth most common neurological disorders and effects 1 in 26 individuals to some extent.

Epilepsy can be unpredictable, and varies in terms of seizure frequency, type, and control from person-to-person. Epilepsy will often be diagnosed in people that have had at least two seizures that were not caused by a different known medical condition, which just goes to show you how much it can vary.

Seizures are defined by the NHS as ‘sudden bursts of electrical activity in the brain that temporarily affect how it works’.

These seizures can be simple partial (focal) seizures, which involve:

A strange feeling.

An unusual smell of taste.

A rising feeling in the tummy.

A sense of déjà vu.

A tingling in the arms and/or legs.

A stiffness or twitching in certain parts of the body.

All usually experienced while the person is aware or awake and sometimes as ‘warnings’ or a pre-‘aura’ before another type of seizure might occur.

Complex partial (focal) seizures include a loss of awareness and random body movements such as:

Smacking one’s lips.

Rubbing one’s hands.

Making random noises.

Moving one’s arms around erratically.

Chewing or swallowing.

People who experience these seizures aren’t able to respond to others while this is happening and, typically, will lack any memory of it.

Tonic-clonic seizures are what most people consider to be a typical epileptic fit and happens in two stages. The tonic stage occurs when the person suddenly loses consciousness, their body goes stiff and they typically fall to the floor. This is then followed by the clonic stage, in which the person’s limbs jerk, they might void their bladder or bowels, or potentially bit their tongue or the inside of their cheek. Difficulty may also occur in a person’s breathing, which can cause extreme distress.

These seizures tend to stop after a few minutes, but the emotional impact and the physical aftermath may last a lot longer.

Purely tonic seizures and purely clonic seizures are also possible, and come with the isolated symptoms for each stage. Myoclonic seizures also exist – in which a person’s body might twitch or jerk soon after waking up – and atonic seizures, in which a person’s muscles suddenly relax causing sudden, passing collapses.

Seizures can be triggered by many different things but there are some common triggers, including:

Stress.

A Lack of sleep.

Waking up (for myoclonic seizures).

Alcohol.

Medications.

Periods.

Flashing lights can also cause seizures, but this is actually a pretty uncommon trigger, despite being very strongly attributed to epilepsy by many.

Epilepsy and Relationships (Practical Considerations)

Given the huge range of seizures, triggers, and frequency involved in epilepsy, the extent to which epilepsy can impact a relationship really depends on just how much epilepsy affects that person’s daily life in general.

That being said, epilepsy can cause a lot of disruption and distress if a seizure occurs, so if you know you’re prone to seizures then it’s generally considered good sense to let people know about it in advance. This applies to social situation in general, rather than just intimate ones, but could be the difference between a safer seizure and something more severe.

If seizures are frequent and a person plans to have sexual encounters, or be in an isolated situation with someone, then talking to that person/people in advance might be essential. The primary concern here will be consent and potential seizure precaution. It pays to let potential partner/s know that a seizure might occur so that they are not surprised by one and to give them a brief rundown of what to do during a seizure in order to minimize any damage.

Equally, regardless of whether you currently have an epileptic partner/s, it pays to know how to help during an epileptic seizure. This is the general advice (courtesy of Epilepsy Australia), and further information is readily available online:

Epilepsy and Relationships (Emotional Considerations)

But, as we all know, relationships aren’t just about physical or practical considerations, and epileptic seizures can be incredibly traumatising for both the person having the seizure and the person witnessing it.

If the person witnessing the seizure, for example, has never witnessed a seizure before then it might cause a very strong shock to the system. That person might worry about their partner’s overall safety to a stronger degree afterwards, perhaps developing a fear of hurting them or ‘causing’ a seizure with their actions. There may also be a difficulty in finding a partner sexually attractive soon after a seizure, not for lack of love or affection, but due to the negative psychological association that has been made.

People who have a seizure in relationships might equally feel vulnerable, concerned about what their partner thinks about them, or that they might not even be worthy of love due to the difficulty that their condition can sometimes cause. All relationships have hurdles, but physically violent medical conditions add another unwanted element that may need regular attention and consideration.

But, cliché as it may sound, relationships and sexual encounters are all about the mutual respect and affection that people might have for each other, and communication is often the key to moving forwards in a healthy manner.

For brief encounters sometimes just checking in before sex and then after a seizure (should it happen) might be all those involved need to feel reassured.

For longer/romantic relationships it pays to sit down, share each other’s feelings, and have long conversations about the condition. Being open and honest about the struggles that epilepsy can bring and learning how to cope together may not be easy, but it will ultimately allow you to move forward together as a stronger romantic unit. Support groups for both sufferers and loved ones of sufferers may also provide vital support during difficult moments, so it’s worth finding out what your local (and online) resources might be.

Epilepsy and Sex (Is It Even An Issue?)

For some people with epilepsy, sex will pose no issue whatsoever.

But, unfortunately over half of men with epilepsy, and a third of women with epilepsy, say they have problems with sex.

The silver lining to this is that, for most, the sexual problem encountered is not seizures during sex, but the fear of this happening can sometimes cause other issues, such as decreased libido and difficulty reaching orgasm, or maintaining an erection.

The fear of having a seizure during sex is understandable – sex puts the body under physical conditions that some might consider similar to their seizure triggers, and orgasms create muscle spasms, which people might also fear will cause neurological changes.

In such situations, especially if this fear is ongoing or leads to other conditions (such as erectile dysfunction or vaginismus) then it might be worth contacting a sexual professional. Alternatively, looking at other ways to enjoy being touched intimately is an option – sex doesn’t have to be about thrusting, panting, and reaching a climax, after all.

But please do allow me to emphasise that sex as a seizure trigger is extremely rare and will most likely not cause a problem in and of itself.

Some people also find that the medication, hormone imbalances, or areas of the brain that are involved with their epilepsy make it so that desire is simply inherently low or that they do experience physical symptoms (like ED, vaginal dryness, or muscle spasms).

If this is the case then, again, communication is important, but so is defining just how important sex is to you, to your partner/s and to the relationship that you want to have together.

If you are hoping to increase your libido or beat your symptoms, then going to a doctor might be a good way forward, but so, too, can some typical libido boosters, such as reading/watching more erotica, learning to masturbate and embrace self-love, and trying to increase frequency in order to inherently boost desire.

There are also many adult products on the market that might help, such as lubricant for vaginal dryness and vibrators or other sex toys for exploring and encouraging new sensations.

The Takeaway

Whatever your personal situation and whatever your relationship/s just know that epilepsy, although distressing, is often manageable – usually through medical assistance and a diligent documentation of seizure triggers and duration.

Help is out there and, hopefully, awareness projects such as National Epilepsy Awareness Month will ultimately make it so that everyone is informed about epilepsy, how to manage seizures, and the best way forward.