Syncope is the medical term for fainting. It happens when your brain doesn’t get enough blood flow and you lose consciousness. Usually a slow heart rate causes a drop in blood pressure, which reduces the blood flow to the brain. In most cases, you recover within seconds or minutes. A small number of people, mostly the elderly, have episodes of fainting.
If you have slurred speech or have trouble moving an arm or a leg after fainting, call for emergency help immediately -- this may be a sign of stroke.
Signs and Symptoms
You may have these signs and symptoms before you faint:
- Feeling warm
- Blurred vision
- Heaviness in your legs
- Nausea, and sometimes vomiting
When you faint, in addition to losing consciousness, you may have the following symptoms:
- Turning very pale
- Falling down or slumping
- Spasmodic jerks of your body
- Weak pulse
- Drop in blood pressure
What Causes It?
Fainting often happens due to a simple, non-medical cause: Standing up for long periods of time, feeling emotional distress, or even the sight of blood. More rarely, it may be the result of a serious health condition, such as heart disease (decreased blood flow to the heart or irregular heart rhythm), low blood sugar, seizures, panic attacks, and problems regulating blood pressure. Severe blood loss can also cause fainting.
Who's Most At Risk?
People with the following conditions or characteristics are at risk for fainting:
Over 65 years of age
Already have heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure
Recreational drug use
Taking certain medications such as blood pressure medication, insulin, oral diabetes medications, diuretics (water pills), medications to control heart rhythm, or blood thinners
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
You should see your doctor after fainting. Your health care provider will ask questions about what you were doing before you fainted and how you felt afterward, do a physical exam, and some tests. Tests may include blood tests, electrocardiogram (ECG), and imaging of the brain, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Your doctor will focus on medications you take, preexisting medical conditions, and your description of any similar episodes you may have had in the past. This will help your health care provider pinpoint why you fainted and rule out particular health conditions. If seizures are suspected, your doctor may also do a test called an electroencephalogram (EEG).
These tips may help you avoid fainting.
- Avoid fatigue, hunger, and stress. Don't skip meals.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Avoid changing positions quickly, especially getting up from a sitting or lying-down position.
- Sleep with the foot of your bed raised.
- Don't stand for long periods of time.
- Wearing elastic stockings may keep blood from pooling in your legs, which may reduce blood flow to the brain.
- Diuretics and other prescription and non-prescription medicines can contribute to the problem, so check with your health care provider.
- Avoid tight clothing around the neck.
- Turn your whole body and not just your head when looking around.
- To prevent injuries, cover floors with thick carpeting and avoid driving or using mechanical equipment.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
If you feel like you are going to faint, lie down and raise your legs -- that helps keep blood flowing to your brain. If you can't lie down, sit down and put your head between your knees. Or stand with your legs crossed and thighs pressed together -- this can also help keep blood from pooling in your legs.
Any serious underlying health condition should be treated. When someone faints, raise his or her legs to help increase blood flow to the brain. Loosen all tight clothing, apply cold water to the person's face, and turn the person's head to the side to prevent vomiting or choking. A pregnant woman should lie on her left side to relieve pressure on the heart.
When an irregular heartbeat causes fainting, your health care provider may prescribe medications such as beta-blockers or antiarrhythmics. Your health care provider may also prescribe steroids (such as fludrocortisone) or salt tablets to help control the amount of sodium and fluids in your body.
Surgical and Other Procedures
If fainting is caused by a heart condition, such as a slow or rapid heartbeat, you may need a pacemaker.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Although there are no specific treatments for fainting, a number of alternative therapies help protect the heart and blood vessels. Fainting may be caused by a serious underlying health condition, so check with your health care provider before taking any herbs or supplements. Always tell your health care provider about the herbs and supplements you are using or considering using.
You may have warning signs before fainting. Hypnosis, deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and biofeedback may help you avoid fainting. These techniques may also help you control fainting related to regulation of your blood pressure.
Nutrition and Supplements
These nutrition tips may help you stay healthy and avoid fainting:
- Don't skip meals. Eat a healthy diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein and good fats.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
These supplements may promote heart health:
- Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil -- may help lower inflammation and improve heart health. Cold-water fish, such as salmon or halibut, are good sources. Omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood-thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin.
- Coenzyme Q10 -- an antioxidant that may be good for heart health. Do not take CoQ10 if you take blood-thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix) or aspirin. CoQ10 can make these drugs less effective, so they might not work work as well .
- Acetyl-L-carnitine -- an antioxidant that may be good for heart health. People who take thyroid hormone or who have had seizures in the past should ask their doctor before taking acetyl-L-carnitine.
- Alpha-lipoic acid -- an antioxidant that may be good for heart health. People who take thyroid hormone should ask their doctor before taking alpha-lipoic acid. People who have low levels of thiamine should not take alpha-lipoic acid.
- L-arginine -- an antioxidant that may help promote good circulation. Be sure to ask your doctor before taking l-arginine, because it may interfere with other treatments and may not be right for you. It can also cause problems with blood pressure as well as make herpes infections worse. Some people may be allergic to l-arginine.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
- Green tea (Camelia sinensis) -- an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that may be good for heart health. Use caffeine-free products. You may also make teas from the leaf of this herb.
- Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) -- an antioxidant that helps promote good circulation. Bilberry may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood-thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin. People with low blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or blood clots should not take bilberry without first talking to their doctor. Do not take bilberry if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) -- an antioxidant that may be good for heart health. Gingko interacts with many medications, including blood-thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin) and clopidogrel (Plavix). People with diabetes, fertility problems, a history of seizures, and bleeding disorders may not be able to take ginkgo. Because of the potential for many interactions, do not take gingko without your doctor's supervision.
Sometimes, fainting may be due to drops in a hormone called cortisol. Ask your doctor about testing for low cortisol. Some doctors may prescribe cortisol hormone supplements or use nutrients and herbs to get cortisol levels back to normal.
Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person’s constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced and certified homeopath will assess your individual constitution and symptoms, and then recommend remedies. Below are common remedies used for fainting or pre-fainting symptoms:
- Carbo vegetabilis -- used for fainting or lightheadedness after rising in the morning, from loss of fluids, or from becoming overheated
- Opium -- used for fainting due to excitement or fright
- Sepia -- used for fainting following prolonged standing, exercise, or fluid loss due to fever
Acupuncture may help treat fainting. A clinical analysis of 102 serious cases of loss of consciousness reported that acupuncture helped in a large number of these cases.
Acupuncture does not often cause side effects or complications. However, some people may faint during acupuncture treatments, although it is not considered a serious complication.
In most people, simple fainting is not a sign of a life-threatening disease, particularly if it only happens once. The elderly have a higher risk of injury after a fainting episode, especially from fractures.
Many people who faint, especially the elderly and those who have heart disease, may be hospitalized to look for a cause. Continuous ECG monitoring can help spot an irregular heartbeat as a cause of fainting, especially in people who faint more than once.
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- Last Reviewed on 06/18/2012
- Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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This page was last updated: May 7, 2013