“I remember when it happened to me. It was last June during choir rehearsal. We had been standing on the risers practicing for at least an hour, and it was really hot and humid. The first thing I noticed was that everybody sounded really far away–like somebody had turned down the volume. Then I looked at the choir director, and he looked like he was melting into a gray background. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor behind the risers, and everybody in the back row was staring at me. I couldn’t recognize their faces at first, but then I started to focus on people I knew. I was so embarrassed!” Andrea blushed, remembering the incident.
“When it happened to me,” said Dan, “I was at the hospital because my brother had been hurt. My parents and I got to th hospital about the same time as my brother, so we saw him being wheeled into the emergency room. He had been in a motorcycle accident, and he was bleeding badly from a cut on his scalp. I remember looking at him. Then I began to sweat and feel sick to my stomach. I heard this roaring sound in my ears, and then everything went black. I woke up on a couch in the waiting room, but I couldn’t remember how I got there.”
Not Getting Enough Oxygen to the Brain
Physicians call this experience syncope (sin-ko-pe), but most of us call it fainting. It is a frightening experience for the person who faints, as well as for those who faints, as well as for those who observe it. Fainting is caused by a decrease in oxygenated blood reaching the brain. At least 20 percent of us experience it at least once in our life.
There are two systems that work together to ensure that the brain gets enough oxygen: the circulatory system and the nervous system. In the two examples described by Andrea and Dan, the cause was known and fainting was not associated with serious illness.
Andrea had been standing very still for a long time in a warm environment. She may have locked her knees, making it difficult for her circulatory system to get blood from her legs bact to her heart to be reoxygenated and recirculated. Her oxygen-starved brain just blanked out for a few minutes. As soon as she was placed in a prone position, circulation to her brain improved and she began to awaken. Most victims of fainting will regain consciousness shortly after they fall or lie down.
Feeling a Little Light-headed
Many teens experience light-headedness when they stand up quickly. Gravity is the cause. When you stand up, gravity attempts to keep blood in the lower half of your body. To counteract this, the veins constrict through a message from the nervous system. The heart rate increases to achieve sufficient pressure to pump blood “uphill” to the brain. Sometimes, there is a time lapse between standing and the time when your circulatory system gets the message to adjust its pressure and rate of pumping. The result is postural (orthostatic) hypotension–low blood pressure due to the body’s position.
This phenomenon may simply cause light-headedness, followed by a pulsing sensation when the blood pressure surges upward. For some people, it may result in fainting. The solution is to stand up more slowly, allowing the body time to ajust its blood pressure and heart rate to accommodate the new body position.
A Drop in Blood Pressure or Volume
In Dan’s case, emotional shock triggered his fainting. A sudden stimulus, such as shocking news, can cause the vagus nerve to slow the heart rate and decrease the output of the heart. This drops the blood pressure and decreases oxygen to the brain. Result? A sudden loss of consciousness. Pain and fatigue can also trigger this response.
Another cause of fainting may be a sudden drop in blood volume. It’s hard to get sufficient blood to the brain when there isn’t sufficient blood or fluid in the circulatory system. If a lot of blood is lost due to an injury, there would be less to circulate. Similarly, blood volume can drop if the body loses a lot of fluid as a result of vomiting or diarrhea. These causes are all temporary. Once the medical condition is corrected, the fainting episodes should stop.
But there are other causes that are more serious. Reactions to certain medications can be responsible, and an adjustment in medication will be necessary. Fainting might also signal a variety of other medical problems, including heart problems, stroke, hypoglycemia, and anemia. Teens who skip breakfast may be prone to fainting. Any unexplained or repeated episode of fainting should be brought to a doctors’ attention immediately.
What You Can Do
Sometimes people who are about to faint recognize the early symptoms and tell someone they feel faint. The greatest risk of injury is falling and sustaining a head or neck injury. So, if someone appears pale, is sweating, and acts disoriented or says he or she feels nauseated and faint, get that person to lie down to avoid a fall. If the person is sitting, make sure the head is lower than the heart. Then ease the victim to the floor and elevate the feet 8 to 12 inches. This encourages better circulation to the head.
Loosen any restrictive clothing, like a tie, belt, or collar. Do not give anything to eat or drink. Since some fainting victims feel nauseated, taking food or water could trigger vomiting. Use your judgment deciding whether to cover the victim with a blanket. If the fainter is sweating and nauseated, adding heat could make matters worse.
The victim should regain consciousness in a few minutes but should not be allowed to stand up right away. (This could precipitate another fainting episode.) If a cause for fainting cannot be determined, summon medical help.
When victims have no warning of fainting and fall, head injuries can occur. Check for signs of head injury, and question the victim after he or she awakens. Look for a medic alert tag that may give a clue to the cause of fainting. If a head injury has occurred, try to keep the victim as still as possible. Do not allow neck or back movement until medical help arrives. Do not elevate feet or move the person in any way if you suspect a neck or back injury.
For Andrea and Dan, embarrassment may have been the worst part of fainting episodes, but, for some, fainting can be a symptom of a more serious problem.