Sleeping on your stomach may heighten your risk of sudden death if you have epilepsy, new research suggests.

sleepingBeauty-femmewiseSudden, unexpected death in epilepsy occurs when an otherwise healthy person dies and “the autopsy shows no clear structural or toxicological cause of death,” said Dr. Daniel Friedman, assistant professor of neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

This is a rare occurrence, and the study doesn’t establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between sleeping position and sudden death.

Still, based on the findings, people with epilepsy should not sleep in a prone (chest down) position, said study leader Dr. James Tao, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Chicago.

“We found that prone sleeping is a significant risk for sudden, unexpected death in epilepsy, particularly in younger patients under age 40,” said Tao.

For people with epilepsy, brief disruptions of electrical activity in the brain leads to recurrent seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.

It’s not clear why prone sleeping position is linked with a higher risk of sudden death, but Tao said the finding draws parallels to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

It’s thought that SIDS occurs because babies are unable to wake up if their breathing is disrupted. In adults with epilepsy, Tao said, people on their stomachs may have an airway obstruction and be unable to rouse themselves.

For the study, Tao and his colleagues reviewed 25 previously published studies that detailed 253 sudden, unexplained deaths of epilepsy patients for whom information was available on body position at time of death.

The findings were published online Jan. 21 in the journal Neurology.

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