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Epilepsy is a condition caused by a disturbance in the electrochemical activity of the brain. It is not a specific disease, but a group of symptoms that may be associated with several conditions. The returning seizures are characterized by combinations of psychic, sensory, and motor malfunction and may or may not be accompanied by convulsions or unconsciousness. There are several types of epilepsy, however the most common includes four categories: grand mal, petit mal, focal, and psychomotor seizures.

Characteristics and types of epileptic seizures

  • The grand mal seizureis the most severe type of seizure. A grand mal seizure may be preceded by an "aura", or sensation of awareness, before the onset of a seizure. The individual loses consciousness and has a severe muscular contraction; then the rigidity of the muscles gives way to a jerking state. The individual may be incontinent during the seizure, salivate excessively and lose bladder control. The individual is usually exhausted after the attack.
  • A petit mal seizureis quick and may last only a few seconds or minutes. The individual will appear to be staring in space and have a vacant look and no attention. Signs may be twitching around the eyes or mouth. The individual does lose consciousness but does not collapse. Children between the ages of 5 and 12 years are often affected by a petit mal seizure. 
  • A focal seizureis similar to the grand mal seizure. It is characterized by a loss of body tone and collapse. The individual will remain conscious during the attack, but speech may be impaired.
  • A psychomotor seizureis characterized by purposeful motor and psychic behavior that is irrelevant for the time and setting and is not remembered. Often it is accompanied by hallucinations, which may be labeled as "bad behavior".

Teaching Tips

  • Epilepsy usually will have little effect on an individual's ability to participant in aquatic activity. 
  • A swimmer with epilepsy [like any other swimmer] should never swim alone. Use the buddy system. 
  • Maintain close supervision during aquatic activity. 
  • Have the swimmer avoid holding his/her breath for a lengthy time.
  • Scuba diving and Board diving need to be discussed with a physician. 
  • Monitor temperature of water. Hyperthermia is known to trigger seizures. 
  • Be cautious in highly competitive or emotional activities. 
  • If using outdoor pool, sunglasses or tinted goggles may be useful.

Safety Tips

  • Obtain a medical clearance that lists contraindicated activities. 
  • Be aware there are certain factors that trigger an onset, including:
    • emotional stress
    • hyperventilation 
    • strobe lights 
    • excessive caffeine


Lepore, M., Gayle, G.W. & Stevens, S. (1998). Adapted aquatics programming: a professional guide. Champaign, IL: Human         Kinetics.

Auxter, D., Pyfer, J., & Huettig, C. (1997). Principles and methods of adapted physical education and recreation. St. Louis:McGraw-Hill.

This page was created by Marla Hooten,
Physical Educator in the Denton ISD Public Schools,
as part of a requirement in
Aquatics for Special Populations,
Texas Woman's University,  Summer, 2000.

page last updated 1/3/2017 1:00 PM