Friday Weird Science: When it feels really good to brush your teeth

Feb 20 2009 Published by under Friday Weird Science

This is another post along the lines of the odd things that get off certain members of the humans species. I'm sure some of us wish we were these people, but in some cases (like this one), it's not a fortunate as you might suppose. Chuang, et al. "Tooth-brushing epilepsy with ictal orgasms". Seizure, 2004, 13, 179-182.
This post brought to you by the bibliography of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. Also brought to you by the letter L, and by a very tired Scicurious who needs ice cream.

I'm sure when most of you think of epilepsy, you think of something very scary. People writhing uncontrollably on the floor, or possibly (in other cases) frozen in position. In many cases, seizures involve loss on consciousness for a few seconds or minutes. But what about...orgasm?
This was a case study involving a 41-year-old woman, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy since the age of 24. Her epilepsy is what is called "reflex epilepsy", which means that the person getting the seizure is having it in response to a specific stimulus (like flashing lights in Pokemon). In this case, her epilepsy came on when she brushed her teeth. And it manifested as an orgasm.
Oh, darn. You might be thinking. Woman must have the cleanest teeth in the world. But it's not as good as you might think. First of all, the woman had a hysterectomy (her uterus was taken out) at age 22, after which she had been completely unable to achieve orgasm (which tells me someone did not do a good job on her surgery). Two years later, she was brushing her teeth like normal, and all of a sudden, the earth moved.
While you might think this would be a profound relief to a woman who had been unable to achieve orgasm the past few years, it's still not as good as it sounds. Each orgasm was followed by a period of unconsciousness lasting for about two minutes. Of course, if you're standing while brushing your teeth (as most people are), and then you have an orgasm and lose can see where this might be a problem. She was having them about twice a week and ONLY while brushing her teeth.
The second problem actually had to do with culture. The woman appears to have been from Taiwan, and may not have been from an area with a great deal of medical or physiological education availible. She thought her symptoms were a sign that she was possessed by demons, and for years she was scared and too ashamed to seek help. Finally, she had so many injuries from falling unconscious while brushing her teeth that she gave in and began to look for a cure.
So what was wrong? It appears that the "reflex" associated with the seizure was associated exclusively with brushing her teeth. They tried massaging her gums with a finger and poking them with chopsticks to no effect. An EEG showed HUGE changes in brain activity during tooth-brushing, and brain scans (SPECT and MRI) showed a decrease in volume and activity in the right temporal lobe and hippocampus.
Interestingly, there have been other cases of women who have sexual feelings as the result of seizures. It is most common with right temporal love epilepsy, which could produce some of the decreases in activity of the right temporal lobe, as seen in this case. It turns out that the right hemisphere of the brain plays a big role in sexual function. Sex hormones are right-side dominany, and arousal activates the right hemisphere more than the left. So it's possible that her right temporal lobe epilepsy could be the reason that part of her seizures manifested itself as an orgasm.
Luckily, the doctors soon realized that it was epilepsy, and put her on various anti-convulsants. Though they reduced the incident of her seizures (and her orgasms) to two or three times a month, it was still too frequent. The end result? The woman switched to mouthwash.
Y CHUANG (2004). Tooth-brushing epilepsy with ictal orgasms Seizure, 13 (3), 179-182 DOI: 10.1016/S1059-1311(03)00109-2

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