Can students with epilepsy participate in sports?

  • April 27, 2023
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Students with epilepsy participating in sports

Does a student at your school have seizures? You might be unsure about what this means for their participation in sports classes - or if it’s safe. In this article, you’ll learn more about epilepsy, and what it means for physical activity at school. 

So, can students with epilepsy participate in sports? Let’s find out. 

What is epilepsy?

Before discussing how or even should students with epilepsy participate in sports, it’s helpful to have an understanding of what this condition is

Epilepsy is a disorder in the brain which causes people to have seizures. A seizure is when there’s a sudden surge of electric activity in the brain, and this affects the person’s senses, awareness and physical movement. 

Seizures look different depending on the type of epilepsy a child has. Sometimes it’s short staring spells, other times they might twitch or jerk uncontrollably, or they might walk about while unaware. Sometimes they may fall over and shake. For some kids the seizures are relatively ‘mild’ and infrequent, and they can be controlled with medication or other treatments. For other kids the seizures happen often and are harder to control. 

Epilepsy is common. The CDC states that just under 1% of children aged 0-17 have epilepsy, so it’s likely there are at least one or two children with the condition in most schools. 

Related: Tips for teaching students with epilepsy

Can students with epilepsy participate in sports?

Yes, generally speaking it is safe for students with epilepsy to participate in sports. There are always exceptions depending on the child, their doctor’s recommendations, and the sport itself. But it is usually perfectly safe for students to take part in school sports. 

The International League Against Epilepsy (a global congress of scientists) published guidance in 2015 about the risk of injury associated with different types of sports for people with epilepsy. It showed that most of the kinds of sports kids play at school have limited additional risk for people with seizure disorders. 

The following table from the ILAE categorizes sports by level of risk of injury or death, should a seizure occur:

Group 1 – No significant additional risk to people with Epilepsy (PWE) or to bystanders.

• Athletics other than sports listed under Group 2

• Bowling

• Most collective contact sports (judo, wrestling)

• Curling

• Most team sports taking place on grass or a court (baseball, basketball, cricket, field hockey, football, rugby, volleyball, etc.)

• Nordic (cross-country) skiing

• Dancing

• Golf

• Racquet sports (squash, tennis, badminton, ping pong, etc.)

Group 2 sports (moderate risks to the PWEs but not to bystanders)

• Alpine skiing

• Archery

• Athletics (pole vault)

• Biathlon, triathlon, modern pentathlon

• Canoeing

• Collective contact sports involving potentially serious injury (e.g., boxing, karate, etc)

• Cycling

• Fencing

• Gymnastics

• Horse riding (e.g., Olympic equestrian events— dressage, eventing, show jumping)

• Ice hockey

• Shooting

• Skateboarding

• Skating

• Snowboarding

• Swimming

• Water skiing

• Weightlifting

Group 3 sports (high risk for PWEs, and, for some sports, also for bystanders)

• Aviation

• Climbing

• Diving

• Horse racing

• Motor sports

• Rodeo

• Parachuting

• Scuba diving

• Ski jumping

• Solitary sailing

• Surfing and windsurfing

Epilepsy and sports blogs

We’ve written guides around playing multiple sports with epilepsy - read them for more insight: 

Should students with epilepsy participate in sports? Know the risks

Although it is generally safe for children with epilepsy to participate in sports, in the past doctors sometimes advised against it. While often this was more to do with being overly cautious, there are some legitimate concerns that teachers should be aware of:

  • Swimming and watersports: For children whose seizures are not controlled, water poses obvious hazards. If you conduct a risk assessment and decide to let the child swim, they must be monitored at all times. 
  • Overheating concern: For some people with epilepsy, overheating can cause seizures - and sport could pose a risk here. Being outside on hot and sunny days, and the increase in body temperature when being physically active, are both issues to be aware of. 
  • Over-exertion: Being very tired can trigger seizures too - so kids with epilepsy should be monitored in case they get exhausted when playing sport. 

Can students with epilepsy participate in sports? The benefits

It’s important to be aware of the benefits of letting kids with epilepsy participate in sports too:

  • Helps seizure control: There is a growing body of evidence that suggests physical activity can help with seizure control, and can be used alongside medicine as a form of treatment (though this depends on each child and their doctor’s recommendations). 
  • Helps with epilepsy comorbidities: A ‘comorbidity’ is an illness that happens alongside another sickness. Many people with epilepsy have mental health comorbidities, such as anxiety and depression. Again, studies indicate regular exercise can help manage these too. 
  • Boosts self-confidence: If you teach sports, you’ll know just how important it can be for a kid’s self-esteem. And particularly for children who have epilepsy, being allowed to play can give them a real boost
  • Tackle stigma: By showing that children with epilepsy are able to play sport like everyone else, you can tackle stigma. 

Sports inspiration: 5 football players with epilepsy

Suggestions for sports classes with kids who have epilepsy

If you are teaching a sports class and one of your students has epilepsy, the following tips might help. Always check with the school nurse or a medical professional if you have any doubts:

Get a seizure action plan in place

By talking with the child, their carers, their doctor and the school nurse, you can put together an action plan for when they play sports at school. The plan might include things like:

  • Which sports they can participate in
  • Which sports it’s not yet safe for them to do
  • What to do if they have a seizure
  • Warning signs of a seizure 
  • Information on medication and rescue medication
  • Information on emergency protocols

Remember that the child’s doctor should be involved in this conversation - they can give specific advice. 

Go slow and steady

If the child hasn’t played so much sport before, take it slow and steady. For example, if you’re doing a long distance running class, encourage them to go at their own pace and take all the breaks they need. 

Use a buddy system

In a buddy system, the child with epilepsy will have another student (ideally a friend) look out for them. It’s not possible for a teacher to see everything that’s happening in the class all the time, so giving their buddy responsibility can help alert you to problems. 

Ensure the child has plenty of fluids and avoids overheating

This is especially important when doing sports classes on warmer days. Make sure they have enough water, and bring spare. 

The power of sports

If you’re wondering should students with epilepsy participate in sports, getting informed about the benefits - as well as things to look out for, is valuable. By taking some simple precautionary steps, checking with the child’s carers and doctor, and being aware of the risks, you can ensure that the child gets to experience all the benefits of sport now - and for years to come. 

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