Strobe lighting at dance concerts may triple risk of epileptic fits
Research published in the British Medical Journal calls for warnings to be issued at gigs
Fever Ray - real name Karin Elisabeth Dreijer Andersson - performs live at Fabrique in Milano, Italy, last year. Photograph: Mairo Cinquetti / Getty Images
Strobe lighting at electronic dance music festivals may be linked to a tripling in the risk of epileptic fits in susceptible individuals, according to new research published in the British Medical Journal.
Organisers need to issue warnings and advice on preventive measures, particularly for those who have a history of epilepsy that responds to flashing lights, known as photosensitive epilepsy, the researchers argued.
The research also noted that the popularity of dance music events generates revenues of €5 billion every year worldwide.
Strobe lighting is known to heighten the risk of epileptic seizures in susceptible individuals.
However, the risks associated with attending electronic dance music festivals are not widely known, and organisers consequently don’t routinely warn visitors about them.
Prompted by the case of a 20 year old that collapsed at one such festival and then experienced an epileptic seizure for the first time, the researchers decided to look in more detail at the potential health impacts of strobe lighting at dance music events.
They drew on data for incidents requiring medical assistance, including for ecstasy use, among 400,343 visitors to 28 daytime and night time electronic dance music festivals in the Netherlands throughout 2015.
They used data from one company which provides medical services to nearly all dance music festivals in the Netherlands.
Eyewitness reports of sudden loss of consciousness and muscle twitching combined with physical findings, such as evidence of tongue biting and temporary urinary incontinence, were used to inform a diagnosis of an epileptic seizure.
Some 241,543 people attended night time gigs where strobe lighting was used, and 158,800 attended daytime gigs where strobe lighting was less intense because of the effects of sunlight.
In all, medical assistance was provided on 2,776 occasions. In 39 cases this was for an epileptic seizure, 30 of which occurred at night time, meaning that the risk of a seizure associated with a night time event was 3.5 times greater than for a daytime event.
Use of ecstasy, which is the most commonly used recreational drug at dance music events, and which has been associated with heightened epileptic seizure risk, was more likely among those attending night time events.
The breakdown was around one in four compared with one in 10 of those attending daytime events.
But the proportion of cases in which the drug had been used was similar in both groups of visitors, suggesting that this alone wasn’t responsible for the heightened seizure risk, suggested the researchers.
The study was observational, and as such, can’t establish cause. What’s more, the researchers weren’t able to glean other potentially influential factors, such as medical history, sleep deprivation, or use of other medication.
The researchers relied on witness reports/on site medical assessments, all of which may have affected the accuracy of the figures.
“We think, however, that our numbers are probably an underestimate of the total number of people who had epileptic seizures,” they said.
“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 festivals, especially during night time, probably cause at least a number of people per event to suffer epileptic seizures.”
They advised anyone with photosensitive epilepsy to either avoid such events or to take precautionary measures, such as getting enough sleep and not taking drugs, not standing close to the stage, and leaving quickly if they experience any negative effects.
“Given the large dataset, we believe our findings are externally valid, at least for other [electronic dance music] festivals in other countries which generally attract a similar audience,” they concluded.