Syncope, the fancy medical name for fainting, is actually a common occurrence that can be caused by a number of factors. Fainting is a sudden and brief loss of consciousness. It generally lasts only 1-2 minutes. The patient awakes, usually finding themselves on the floor, with minimal lingering effects.
While there can be multiple factors as a cause, most instances of fainting are precipitated by a sudden decrease in blood pressure. The vagus nerve, which controls heart rate and blood flow to the brain, can occasionally do its job a little too aggressively. It may cause too much blood to flow away from the brain (the organ controlling our conscious state), and suddenly the person collapses.
Symptoms that serve as warning signs that a fainting spell is imminent include a sudden sense of weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, and sweatiness. If you are prone to fainting and feel these symptoms coming on, the best thing to do is to sit down and place your head between your knees or lay down on the floor. This decreases the risks of injury from suddenly collapsing.
If you witness someone fainting, lower them slowly to the floor if possible. It is helpful to lay the person flat on their back and elevate their legs on a pillow, box, or some other item. This facilitates blood flow back to the brain. If the patient does not regain consciousness within 1-2 minutes, call 911 and stay with the person until help arrives.
When the person arrives in the ER, medical care will be directed towards monitoring of the patient and attempting to find the cause. An EKG (or ECG, electrocardiogram) will most likely be done to rule out a heart issue. This tests the electrical activity of the heart to determine the rhythm and strength of the heart’s beating. A CAT scan of the brain may also be ordered to ensure there is no causative agent there. This is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to see if there are any tumors, bleeding, structural anomalies or other conditions that may be causing problems.
If the symptoms resolve, and no findings are identified, the patient is usually released home with possible further testing to be done as an outpatient.
While fainting can be a frightening event for both the victim and the observer, knowing what to do will ensure the best outcome for everyone. If you faint, it’s always good to check in with your primary care provider to discuss any potential underlying issues and tips for preventing fainting.