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Swimming with epilepsy

Unsure about whether you can go swimming with epilepsy? Research actually shows regular swimming can improve epileptic control.

There are a number of crucial precautions you should take, such as never swimming alone. But with a few steps and clearance from your doctor, there’s no reason why you can’t continue to enjoy swimming regularly.

Read on to find out more about the condition, as well as some top tips for next time you’re heading to the pool.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of brain function that takes the form of recurring seizures and affects 0.5-1 per cent of the population. This means having a swimmer in a training squad or swimming lesson will be quite common.

A seizure occurs when sudden uncontrolled bursts of electrical activity disrupt normal electrical impulses that control brain function.

The seizures are regarded as partial, with no loss of consciousness or generalised, when consciousness is lost. The duration can vary from absences lasting a few seconds to several minutes. Generalised tonic clonic fits occur with loss of consciousness and muscular jerks. Temporal lobe epilepsy often starts with funny smells or tastes before a generalised seizure

What you need to know about epilepsy and swimming

  • Swimming as a recreational sport is to be encouraged for people living with epilepsy provided certain sensible safety precautions are undertaken. Seizures during swimming are actually rare and more likely to happen within the three hours after exercise when blood sugars are low.
  • There is some evidence in addition to the feeling of well-being and fitness that regular swimming may actually improves epileptic control. There are specific benefits to people with epilepsy increasing social integration and reducing any stigma.
  • After diagnosis, clearance from your doctor is advisable before starting swimming.
  • It is very important that swimming is never undertaken alone and that a competent and appropriately trained observer is present with you. The lifeguard, coach or teacher must be aware of your condition and know that if you have a seizure in the water, lifeguards or a friend can help you by supporting your head above the water, and gently towing you to a depth where they can stand up, or to the poolside. They can then support you in the water until the seizure stops. If you are near the poolside, they may need to protect you from hitting the side and injuring yourself. They should have appropriate first aid training and equipment at the pool.
  • Special care is necessary if there has been a recent change in medication, compliance issues or poorly controlled epilepsy when a temporary stop in swimming is indicated until medical approval and similarly when there is and additional physical or mental disability.
  • Some people with epilepsy will recognise warning symptoms when they are about to have a seizure. If you experience these, you should move immediately to the edge of the pool and seek attention.
  • Some will be aware of the specific triggers of their epilepsy such as cold water or flashing lights which should be avoided.

Tips for swimming with epilepsy

  1. Do swim in an outside lane.
  2. Do have a competent observer with you at all times.
  3. Do wear a coloured swimming cap so you can be easily identified.
  4. Don’t over-exert beyond your limits.
  5. Do avoid very busy public sessions.
  6. Do avoid swimming training if you’re overly tired, stressed or suffering from an intercurrent infection with fever. Sudden immersion into cold water could increase your chances of having a seizure.
  7. Be aware of and avoid shimmering sunlight across the pool surface or flashing lights which may precipitate a seizure.
  8. Do ensure when you’re training that blood sugar doesn’t drop by drinking regular glucose drinks and to also avoid dehydration.

Participating in other aquatic activities with epilepsy

Irrespective of your aquatic sport, ensure you have a competent observer with you at all times.

Artistic swimming

  • Avoid strobe lighting effects.
  • Avoid deliberate hyper-ventilation before a sequence.

Diving

  • Avoid diving above 10 metre height.

Open water swimming 

Be aware: someone having a tonic seizure may expel the air from their lungs and sink, quickly disappearing from the view of others, particularly in murky water. It is advisable to have a helper on or in the water and if in the water, to make sure the water level is no higher than the helper’s shoulders.

  • Be aware this carries the additional risks of colder water temperatures, deeper water with currents and tides which might make continual observation and retrieval difficult.

Additional Advice

You can find out additional advice about swimming with epilepsy from your GP, neurologist, specialist epilepsy nurse or the Epilepsy Society helpline on 01494 601 400.

You can also read more at www.epilepsysociety.org.uk.

Health Fact Sheets

Swim England’s Health Commission group have developed a range of fact sheets on swimming with particular health conditions, written for competitive swimmers, the general public and to also assist those who support or advise swimmers.

Listed below is the current fact sheet library for people with health conditions.

To view and download fact sheets written specifically for people who support or advise swimmers, head to our Health and Wellbeing pages.

Health Fact Sheets

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