Star Wars film carries health warning - Cape Cod Healthcare

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Published on December 24, 2019

Star Wars film carries health warning

Star Wars Warning

The Walt Disney Company and the Epilepsy Foundation have issued a warning that certain scenes in the newest Star Wars film may cause seizures in moviegoers affected by photosensitive epilepsy.

Out of an abundance of caution, the warning advised that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which premiered December 20, “contains several sequences with imagery and sustained flashing lights that may affect those who are susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy or have other photosensitivities.”

Should you be concerned?

“Probably not,” said neurologist Mathew Pulicken, MD, MHS, of Neurologists of Cape Cod in Hyannis. The general public shouldn’t worry. He said the flashing lights and explosive fight scenes we’re accustomed to with Star Wars movies may trigger seizures only for the small number of people who have photosensitive epilepsy, which is a very small subgroup of people with generalized epilepsy.

There is no need to panic, Skywalker fans. Outside the blockbuster heroics of the greatest Jedi the galaxy has ever known, here’s what to watch for.

For a small percentage of people with epilepsy, exposure to flashing lights or swirling visual patterns can trigger seizures. A seizure is abnormal electrical activation of networks in the brain leading to uncontrolled activity (can lead to shaking and unconsciousness). Children and adolescents, are most prone to photosensitive epilepsy, which is a type of generalized epilepsy. If you have experienced such a seizure, you may not remember having the event and others may notice changes in awareness or consciousness ,or whole-body shaking, said Dr. Pulicken.

He recalled a television phenomenon that led to warnings such as this one. On December 16, 1997, more than four million people in Japan watched the now infamous 38th animated episode of Pokémon, “Dennō Senshi Porigon,” translated as either “Electric Soldier Porygon” or “Cyber Soldier Porygon.”

About 600 people — mostly children — were rushed to hospitals with symptoms of seizures after watching Pikachu launch a thunderbolt attack with flashing, high-contrast lights. Doctors determined that the 0.9 percent of children surveyed by Japanese physicians in the months following the incident had actually suffered seizures, which was only slightly higher than average.

A new set of guidelines for animation was introduced. The color red, which was found to be especially triggering, could not flash faster than three times per second; flashes of any color could not exceed five per second; and the flashes could not exceed two seconds in length.

Concern for Children

Certain video games, disco lights (which are not as common today) and some concerts still carry warnings for those who have photosensitive epilepsy, said Dr. Pulicken.

The area of greatest concern: children/adolescents who have myoclonic or photosensitive epilepsies, for whom the lights can be a trigger for additional episodes.

“There is always the first time,” said Dr. Pulicken. “Children and adults who have never had seizures or diagnosis of epilepsy could potentially experience a seizure after viewing the movie’s intense flashing lights for the first time. The chances of this happening and the overall risk is very minimal.”

If you or someone you know are sensitive to lights, Disney suggests you consider the following as you make plans to watch the film:

  • Ask a friend to watch it first.
  • Take your friend with you when you go see the film to alert you to which scenes contain the flashing lights, so you block your eyes during those scenes.
  • Teach your friend the three simple steps of seizure first aid — Stay, Safe, Side — so that they can assist if you have a seizure.

Faced with the final installment of the Skywalker saga, fans will undoubtedly be more affected by the emotional goodbyes The Rise of Skywalker evoke than any physical symptoms.

“I’m a fan,” said Dr. Pulicken, “but not a die-hard fan who will be standing in line at the theater the first days after a Star Wars movie premiers. Being in science, it’s hard not to be a Star Wars fan.”