When the lights suddenly go out
Faint, black out, swoon, pass out. They’re all names for the same thing — a temporary loss of consciousness followed by a fairly rapid and complete recovery. It’s frightening when it comes out of the blue, more so when it happens again and again. The technical term, syncope (SIN-kuh-pee), comes from a Greek word that means to cut short or interrupt. What’s being interrupted is blood flow to the brain.
Going, going, gone
It is harder for the heart to pump blood up to the brain than down to the toes. Blood pressure helps overcome the downward tug of gravity and push blood to the head.
We tend to think of blood pressure as a relatively stable entity. It isn’t. It changes every time you stand up, sit down, bend over, eat, sneeze, go to the bathroom, get stressed, relax, or heft a bag of groceries. The human body is designed to counter these shifts and quickly bring blood pressure back to its usual point. But some diseases, some drugs, and sometimes even aging interfere with these near-instantaneous corrections, causing temporary drops in blood flow to the brain.
Unlike most tissues, the brain doesn’t store energy. Instead, it requires a constant supply of sugar and oxygen. Halting blood flow for just three to five seconds is enough to put the brain into an energy-conserving shutdown. The brain’s signals to nerves and muscles stop, and the person slumps to the ground. Once the body is horizontal, it’s easier for the heart to pump blood to the head, and the brain “wakes up” again.
Many things can cause sudden low flow to the brain that leads to fainting. The causes can be grouped loosely into two camps: problems outside the heart (noncardiac syncope), which account for the majority of faints, and problems in the heart (cardiac syncope).
The most common reason for fainting arises from crossed wires between the brain and the part of the nervous system (the vagus nerve) that regulates blood pressure and heart rate. In response to some trigger, the blood vessels in your legs relax, making it difficult for blood to return to the heart. Blood begins pooling in the legs. To make matters worse, the heart slows down just when it ought to be speeding up. Blood pressure drops, and so do you. There are many triggers: fear, pain, intense emotional stress, even having blood drawn or standing for too long. Less common triggers include sneezing, going to the bathroom, lifting weights, a shirt collar rubbing against the side of the neck (the main artery in your neck has a sensor that regulates blood pressure), and even playing a brass instrument. If you have a tendency to faint and are considering learning how to play the tuba, you might think again.
Some people have faint-inducing drops in blood pressure when they get out of bed or stand up from a chair (called postural or orthostatic hypotension) or after eating (called postprandial hypotension). As the body directs extra blood elsewhere, whether it is pulled downward by gravity when you stand or toward the stomach and intestines to aid digestion, less is available to the heart, briefly causing blood pressure to fall.
Fainting caused by trouble in the heart is more worrisome than noncardiac syncope. Rhythm problems are the most common culprit here. The heart may beat too slowly (bradycardia) because of a defect in its electrical system or the influence of medications. It can also beat too fast (tachycardia) because of a rhythm disorder such as atrial fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia. The latter is especially dangerous, since it can turn into ventricular fibrillation, the most common cause of sudden cardiac arrest.
Anything that obstructs blood flow through the heart can also lead to fainting. It could be a blocked or severely narrowed heart valve, a large blood clot, or even a tumor in the heart.
Fighting a faint
Most people get a few seconds of warning that noncardiac fainting is about to happen. They turn pale, become dizzy or lightheaded, and may feel nauseous or break out in a cold, clammy sweat. Sitting or lying down often works to nip the oncoming faint in the bud, as does the proverbial “sit down and put your head between your knees.” Tensing the muscles in your hands, arms, and legs can also help those who are composed enough to remember these maneuvers.
If you know you will be in a situation in which you might faint — say you often pass out at the sight of blood and know you'll be present for the delivery of a baby — here are a few things to do beforehand:
- Drink a quart of juice and eat a bag of potato chips. The idea is to load up with fluid and salt, so there is no chance of dehydration.
- Get some special stockings that put pressure on the calf and thigh muscles. This will help to prevent pooling of blood in the legs.
- Have a reclining chair in the room, preferably one in which the legs can be raised to the level of the heart if light-headedness occurs.
Don’t take it lying down
Most of the time, fainting is a harmless — though disconcerting — event. Sometimes, though, especially in older people, it can be a warning sign of a potentially dangerous heart problem. For that reason, always let your doctor know if you’ve fainted, even if you think it was nothing to worry about.
August 2009 update
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