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Epilepsy patients: sleeping on your stomach may be associated with sudden death

February 04, 2015

New research published in the Journal Neurology brings to light an association between patients with epilepsy who experience sudden unexpected death and their sleep positioning. As researchers reviewed studies pertaining to sudden unexplained death in epileptics, they determined that victims of this tragedy were much more likely to be found lying on their stomachs, especially if they were under 40 years of age.

What does this study mean? 

First, it’s important to know what it doesn’t mean. This study cannot and does not tell us that sleeping on your stomach will kill you, whether you suffer from epilepsy or not. When a scientific study shows an association between two things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one thing causes the other. It means that two things are somehow associated and more work needs to be done to determine exactly what is causing the two to coexist.

Although this study can’t demonstrate a direct cause-and-effect relationship between stomach sleeping and death, it does uncover an important area of concern. We know that sudden unexplained death is the primary cause of death in uncontrolled epilepsy, and these events often occur during sleep with no one to witness the event. People who suffer from tonic-clonic seizures, which affect the entire brain, are more likely to experience these life-threatening events than those who suffer partial seizures. We also know that patients can experience serious heart and breathing problems in the period directly following a seizure.

The study authors surmise that perhaps when a person does experience a seizure during sleep and the corresponding heart and breathing problems that can follow, a person sleeping on their stomach may be less likely to regain consciousness. We know that infants are much less likely to experience sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) when sleeping on their backs. This study indicates that perhaps epileptics who experience a seizure during sleep may also gain a similar type of protection from sleeping on their backs.

What should you do if you suffer from epilepsy? 

The first and most important course of action is to work with your neurologist and your medical team to get your epilepsy controlled to the best of your ability. Sticking with the medication regimen that has been prescribed to you is extremely important.

Know your risks: those who experience generalized tonic-clonic seizures, have seizure onset at a young age, are between the age of 20 and 40 years of age, have previously experienced seizures while sleeping and those with chronic, uncontrolled epilepsy despite medication are at increased risk of sudden unexplained death. If you or your child meets those criteria, talk to your neurologist about what you can do in case this unfortunate event were to happen to you or someone you love.

Your neurologist may agree that “back is best” when sleeping. Other ideas that could offer some protection include not sleeping alone or utilizing wrist-watches or bed alarms that are designed to detect and alert others when a seizure occurs.