Understanding Fainting

Fainting can be a rather alarming experience for both the person who faints and those around them who might bear witness.  One minute you are just hanging out, the next think you know you are passed out on the floor.   But what do we really know about what is happening here, and why?

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What is fainting?

Fainting is known in the medical community as ‘syncope’.  It is defined as a sudden and brief loss of consciousness caused by diminished blood flow to the brain.  There is not just one cause of this event, but many different causes that could inhibit blood flow to the brain and make you faint.  These causes can include issues with the heart, low blood sugar, irregular blood pressure and seizures.  Most often these fainting episodes last only very briefly, and people go on normally.  However, in individuals who are frail, have weakened health, or in the elderly in particular, a loss of consciousness could mean serious injuries from falling.  These injuries from fainting are what account for about 3% of emergency room visits and 6% of hospital admissions, making fainting a common a common problem. 

What Causes Fainting?

Because fainting can have various causes, some serious and some not, it is beneficial to be aware of what might be behind your loss of consciousness. The most common type of fainting spell is called a vasovagal attack, or known as a neutrally-mediated syncope.  This type of fainting is common in children and adolescents, and can happen when there is a sharp drop in blood pressure.  This drop reduces circulation and blood flow to the brain, causing the sudden loss of consciousness.  Some symptoms to watch out for are nausea, lightheadedness, and blurred vision.  If this fainting spell lasts for too long, it can trigger a seizure.

As you get older, fainting could be caused by anxiety, pain or severe stress.  Hunger has even been known to cause fainting in some, when blood sugar levels drop far below where they should be.  Drug and alcohol use can similarly trigger a fainting spell.  More likely than these reasons however, fainting can be due to an underlying heart or neurological issue.  Your body may not be regulating your blood pressure properly, causing fainting spells with sudden changes in posture or extended time standing still.

The following are some common causes of fainting:

·         Autonomic nervous system disorders: This part of the nervous system controls involuntary vital functions, like heartbeat, vasoconstriction and breathing

·         Disorders that effect nervous system, and subsequently blood pressure and heart rate: This could mean diabetes, alcoholism, malnutrition, and amyloidosis

·         Hypertension medication

·         Dehydration

·         Heart or vascular disorders that affect blood flow to the brain: these can include heart block, problems with the sinus node, irregular heartbeat, a blood clot in the lungs, an abnormally narrowed aortic heart valve

·         Conditions that may cause unusual patterns of stimulation to particular nerves.

·         Hyperventilation: typically a result of extreme anxiety or panic

What can you do?

If you are feeling faint, one of the best things you can do is sit down.  This will help you reduce the chances of falling if you do faint.  Another piece of medical advice is to put your head between your knees in this position.  This will allow blood to get back to your head where it is needed.