Epilepsy in Active-Duty Military and Veterans

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021

Anyone of any age can have epilepsy. However, active military are often exposed to conditions that leave them vulnerable to epilepsy. These conditions include blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, grenades, and bombs.1

These blasts can lead to traumatic brain injury (TBI), a form of head trauma common in service members. This is why so many veterans and active service members later develop post-traumatic epilepsy (PTE). PTE is a seizure disorder caused by traumatic brain injury.2,3

Post-traumatic epilepsy can happen to anyone who injures their brain. However, the dangers of developing PTE after a brain injury are higher for service members. Up to a third of the public who suffer a brain injury go on to develop PTE. For active military, as many as half will.2,3

The latest studies estimate up to 170,000 soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will develop post-traumatic epilepsy in their lifetime. One theory is that service members under-report mild concussions. They do this to avoid being removed from combat or active duty. This may partially explain the higher rates of PTE in the military.3

How epilepsy impacts a service member’s health

Studies show epilepsy complicates a soldier’s overall health and quality of life. Veterans with epilepsy who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have more health problems. They also die earlier than those without epilepsy.3,4

One study showed that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with epilepsy were more likely to have certain other health conditions, including:4

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Substance use disorder
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts
  • Brain blood vessel disease
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Schizophrenia
  • Kidney disease

This same study recommended veterans with epilepsy be closely followed by a team. The team should include their primary care doctor, an epilepsy team, and a mental health professional. This helps control seizures better and improve quality of life, which can reduce early death rates.4

Epilepsy programs for the military

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) supports 17 epilepsy centers of excellence nationwide. These clinics provide complete care for veterans with seizure disorders. The VA also produced a video series for veterans and their caregivers.1

The VA partners with the Anita Kaufmann Foundation on the Heads Up for Vets program. This program combats the stigma and discrimination veterans with epilepsy face with:1

  • Free epilepsy information
  • Free seizure first aid training
  • Help finding social support, jobs, transportation, and more
  • Chances to connect with other veterans with a similar diagnosis
  • Opportunities to volunteer and advocate for those with epilepsy

You can learn more about Heads Up for Vets at the Purple Day Every Day website.

The Epilepsy Foundation helps military members and veterans with medical and legal support.

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