An Article by Portland Attorney Sara Staggs
Social Security benefits can seem almost impossible to obtain. In fact, many claims are only approved upon appeal from the initial denial. In addition, allegations of epilepsy are among the most difficult types of claims adjudicated by the Social Security Administration (SSA), and many errors can, and often do, occur with both the Social Security judges and the treating doctors.
A claimant can increase their odds of obtaining benefits with a better understanding of the system. The whole process of being awarded Social Security benefits is based on a five-step disability evaluation. The claimant’s answer to these five questions determines whether they will receive an ‘approved or ‘denied’ letter from the SSA:
- Is the claimant engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and
- Does the claimant have a “severe” impairment; and
- Does this impairment meet or “equal” one of the impairments described in the Social Security “Listing of Impairments”; or
- Considering what the claimant can still do, even with their impairments, (their “residual functional capacity”), are they unable to do “past relevant work,” and
- Is the claimant able, even with the impairment, to do other work, considering the claimant’s age, education and work experience.
The words in quotations have specific definitions under Social Security regulations – and those definitions don’t always follow common sense.
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Answer by Nicholas Poolos, MD
If you are asking this because you’re actually getting strenuous exercise on a regular basis… then good for you! Getting your heart rate up with vigorous physical activity is an important part of being healthy, and having epilepsy shouldn’t be a limitation to exercise. To answer the question more directly–it probably depends on just how “strenuous” the exercise is. In general, exercise should not precipitate seizures, but it’s possible that really strenuous activity that left one dehydrated or overheated might provoke a seizure.
Also, a small proportion–a few percent–of those with epilepsy can provoke seizures with hyperventilation (breathing rapidly), so these people might be at risk of provoking a seizure with vigorous aerobic activity. If you are just starting out on a exercise program, our advice is to gradually increase the intensity of your workouts, and stay well-hydrated. But don’t let epilepsy prevent you from exercising!
Answer by Nicholas Poolos, MD
Whether or not a physician is required by law to report a patient with uncontrolled seizures to the motor vehicle bureau varies by state. Only six states at present are “reporting” states. Oregon is one of them, but Washington State is not. In both Oregon and Washington, anyone who has had a loss of consciousness for any reason, seizures included, must refrain from driving for six months. However, in Washington, it is up to the patient to report that fact to the Department of Licensing when their driver’s license comes up for renewal, not their physician. I think that most physicians prefer not to be required to report their patients to the motor vehicle bureau–it just puts a barrier between the doctor and patient, discouraging the patient from informing the doctor about breakthrough seizures and getting the care they need.
Answer by John W. Miller, MD, PhD
Although many people with epilepsy find that their seizures are affected by sleep, different individuals have very different patterns. Some only have seizures during sleep; some only have them when they are awake.
It’s also not unusual for seizures to be stronger if they happen during sleep. People with some types of epilepsy often have seizures right after they wake up in the morning. With most types of epilepsy, lack of sleep or poor sleep can trigger seizures.
There are great differences in the electrical and chemical activity of different brain regions during wakefulness, quiet sleep, and dreaming sleep, and these differences must explain why a person’s state of arousal or sleep can trigger seizures. However, the relationship between sleep and seizures is so variable in different people, that researchers do not have answers that apply to everyone with epilepsy.
The most important thing is to understand how sleep affects your epilepsy. It is important to get enough sleep. If you have a sleep problem, such as insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep) or sleep apnea, treating the sleep problem may help to control your seizures. If you have to get up early in the morning, be sure to go to bed early enough to get a good night’s sleep. If you find that your seizures typically happen at certain times of night or day, you should be extra careful at those times. Talk to you doctor so that you can understand how sleep affects your seizures, and what you can do about it.