In late 2015, two doctors in India published an article on a man with a strange affliction. For 10 years, he and his wife had a healthy and uneventful sex life. Then one night he ejaculated and fell on her — not exhausted, just suddenly unconscious. Soon, his wife said, his limbs started jerking. Even after he regained consciousness minutes later, he felt hazy. It seemed like a freak incident. But the couple quickly realized this was their new normal. While infrequent at first, soon enough almost every time the man came, he collapsed. He started avoiding sex. Then, five years after the first incident, he finally overcame whatever hang-ups he’d had and sought help from a doctor.
The doctors determined that the man was suffering from orgasm-induced seizures, which are exactly what they sound like. No one’s entirely sure what causes some people to go epileptic after they orgasm, although most who’ve looked at the phenomenon suggest it’s similar to most reflex seizures: Some stimulation, usually light or sound, releases the neurochemicals or causes the activity to trip an irregular reaction in a particularly idiosyncratically sensitive part of a brain, causing a spike in uncontrolled activity across wide swathes, or all, of it.
Reflex seizures are already rare, affecting five to nine percent of any population. Orgasm-induced seizures are rare even in that group. Since their first documentation in 1960, under a dozen cases have been recorded, with the first multi-case review published as recently as 2006. They’re so uncommon not even epilepsy groups mention orgasm as a possible seizure trigger, although the authors of that 2006 study suggest considering the condition more often. We may be missing cases during examinations, and for lack of awareness, some sufferers may never seek treatment.
But the cases we’re aware of tell us interesting things about orgasms. Most patients developed issues only later in life, often seizing with just some partners or after certain acts. Adam Safron, who researches orgasms, suspects this is due to the fact that injury can cause regions of the brain to become sensitive suddenly, or that natural epileptic sensitivity can grow with time. But it also suggests that, while all orgasms look mostly similar on a brain scan, different contexts or stimuli can trigger subtly different neurological patterns, or levels of intensity, in parts of the brain.
“Among partners,” says Safron, “some will be more novel than others and some will arouse you more than others for multiple reasons and on multiple levels. The same touch will be experienced radically differently depending on who it is with and in which contexts.” So some may lead to more intense activity in one part of the brain or another — which isn’t the only factor in a good orgasm, but could help to explain why that person or activity selectively triggered a seizure: They tripped a sensitive bit of the brain, which may grow more broadly sensitive with time.
For the vast majority of people, orgasm-induced seizures are a curiosity, interesting for what they can teach us about the brain — its sensitivities and the facets of the mess of neural responses that make up orgasms. And [MH4] thankfully for those afflicted, it can often be controlled with anti-epileptic drugs. But as the case subjects we know of attest, it can also strike someone new at any given moment, perhaps so subtly you wouldn’t notice, or perhaps with you seizing up on top of a new partner.