As Major League Baseball begins 2014 post season play, Dr. Nathan Fountain, chair of the Epilepsy Foundation’s Professional Advisory Board and professor of neurology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, shares some thoughts about baseball and seizures.
Rewards and Risks of Sports When Someone Has Seizures
Epilepsy does not generally affect athletic ability or prevent people from playing sports. In fact, most studies have found that aerobic exercise generally helps prevent seizures in people with epilepsy. The risk from seizures occurring during athletic activity depends on the type of seizures, their frequency, and the risks of the sport involved.
It is interesting that there is nothing to suggest that common sports cause epilepsy, including contact sports such as football, except in the rare case of being hit by a ball, such as Arizona Diamondbacks' pitcher Brandon McCarthy who was hit in the head with a line drive in 2012 and then had a seizure one year later. The most commonly reported sports-related injury causing epilepsy is actually golf, from spectators being hit by the ball!
Seizures on the Diamond
Baseball in particular is a relatively low risk sport for people with epilepsy and presents relatively little risk to ballplayers from seizures. For athletes with rare or well-controlled seizures, there is little chance a seizure will happen during a game and there is very little increase in risk beyond that inherent in baseball.
A person with frequent convulsive seizures is at risk of falling and harming themselves at any time, although falling on a grassy outfield or soft infield would seem less likely to cause harm than falling at home. The primary way baseball presents an opportunity for injury is if an athlete had a seizure consisting of motionless staring that was not immediately recognized at the same moment a baseball was thrown at him. Seizures typically last only a brief period of time and usually involve other movement that would usually be recognized by others before throwing a ball at the athlete so this is very unlikely. I have a very active epilepsy practice with some interest in sports activities, and I have never seen or heard of this scenario actually occurring.
Of course, common sense is the most important thing in deciding if someone with any medical condition should play baseball because each person has unique circumstances that influence the risk and benefits.
Most people with epilepsy are perfectly healthy other than having the tendency to seizures, but epilepsy could affect a professional athlete in the same way other medical conditions affect athletes. Drug side effects such as drowsiness could be a problem and should be addressed promptly so they can be avoided. During the few minutes after a seizure most people are confused or sleepy, and, for a few people, this can last all day.
Major league great Buddy Bell played third base* with epilepsy for 18 years. It was not publicly known that he had epilepsy because it was not an issue; he won six Golden Gloves during that time! However, it caused occasional problems. He was reported on MLB.com to say, "There were a couple of times where I wasn't able to play because of a seizure. I remember one night in New York, I was taking a shower in the morning, and next thing I know, I woke up in the tub. Obviously, I wasn't able to play that day."
*Primarily with the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers
Going for Their Own Field of Dreams
Epilepsy is usually not a problem for athletes, as is apparent from the number of very successful professional athletes with epilepsy. Diane Van Darren, one of the greatest American ultra-marathoners in history (man or woman), has epilepsy and uses running to prevent the occurrence of seizures. Alan Faneca of the 2005 Superbowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, Olympic medalist Chanda Gunn, and professional swimmer Zach McGinnis have had fantastically successful athletic careers despite having epilepsy.
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