03 July 2019

Strobes at concerts may cause epileptic seizures

Signs of epileptic seizure may include loss of consciousness, muscle twitching, tongue biting and urinary incontinence.

A 20-year-old collapsed at a music festival with a first-time epileptic seizure. While terrifying, his case wasn't unique, according to researchers who found that flashing strobe lights triple seizure risk in susceptible concertgoers.

"Regardless of whether stroboscopic light effects are solely responsible or whether sleep deprivation and/or substance abuse also play a role, the appropriate interpretation is that large [electronic dance music] festivals, especially during nighttime, probably cause at least a number of people per event to suffer epileptic seizures," wrote the authors. The lead author is Newel Salet of VU Medical Centre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Loss of consciousness

For the study, the researchers collected data on concertgoers who needed medical help at 28 daytime and nighttime dance festivals in the Netherlands in 2015. Total attendance was more than 400 000.

Signs of possible epileptic seizure included loss of consciousness, muscle twitching, tongue biting and urinary incontinence.

Nearly 242 000 people attended night concerts where strobes were used, and nearly 159 000 went to daytime festivals where strobes were less intense because of sunlight. Among them, almost 3 000 needed medical assistance, 39 for epileptic seizure.

Seizure risk was nearly four times higher at nighttime festivals with the heavy-duty strobes than at daytime events, the researchers found.

Photosensitive epilepsy

Part of the study included analysing use of the party drug ecstasy, which has been linked to a greater risk of epileptic seizures. But the researchers ruled out the drug as the sole cause of seizures.

The report was published online in the journal BMJ Open.

This study could not prove that strobe lights caused these seizures, only that the two seem connected.

"We think, however, that our numbers are probably an underestimate of the total number of people who had epileptic seizures," Salet and colleagues said in a journal news release.

Epilepsy triggered by flashing lights is called photosensitive epilepsy.

The authors recommended that anyone at risk for a reaction to strobes should avoid electronic music festivals. If you do go, be sure to get enough sleep, don't take drugs and don't stand close to the stage.

If you experience "aura" – perceptual changes that often precede a seizure – leave immediately.

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