Mercy: Excellence. Every Day in Every Way.
  • Find Physicians
or   Contact Mercy
Health Questions

Syncope

Index > Conditions > Syncope     Print
Also listed as: Fainting

Signs and Symptoms
What Causes It?
Who's Most At Risk?
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Treatment Options
Prognosis/Possible Complications
Following Up
Supporting Research

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:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Feeling warm
  • Blurred vision
  • Sweating
  • Heaviness in your legs
  • Confusion
  • Yawning
  • 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
  • Pregnancy

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).

Treatment Options

Prevention

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.

Treatment Plan

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.

Drug Therapies

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.

Herbs

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.

Homeopathy

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

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.

Prognosis/Possible Complications

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.

Following Up

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.

Supporting Research

Ahlemeyer B, Krieglstein J. Neuroprotective effects of Ginkgo biloba extract. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2003;60(9):1779-92.

Alboni P, Dinelli M, Gianfranchi L, Pacchioni F. Current treatment of recurrent vasovagal syncope: between evidence-based therapy and common sense. J Cardiovasc Med (Hagerstown). 2007 Oct;8(10):835-9.

Basu HN, Liepa GU. Arginine: a clinical perspective. Nutr Clin Pract. 2002;17(4):218-25.

Bast A, Haenen GR. Lipoic acid: a multifunctional antioxidant. Biofactors. 2003;17(1-4):207-13.

Beers MH, Porter RS, et al. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 18th ed. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories; 2006:584-588.

Bell DR, Gochenaur K. Direct vasoactive and vasoprotective properties of anthocyanin-rich extracts. J Appl Physiol. 2006;100(4):1164-70.

Cabrera C, Artacho R, Gimenez R. Beneficial effects of green tea -- a review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2006;25(2):79-99.

Carillo-Vico A, Reiter RJ, Lardone PJ, et al., The modulatory role of melatonin on immune responsiveness. Curr Opin Investig Drugs. 2006;7(5):423-31.

Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, et al. Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Invest. 2005;35(11):691-9.

Graf D, Schlaepfer J, Gollut E, van Melle G, Mischler C, Fromer M, et al. Predictive models of syncope causes in an outpatient clinic. Int J Cardiol. 2008 Jan 24;123(3):249-56.

Kimura K, Ozeki M, Juneja LR, Ohira H. l-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biol Psychol. 2006 Aug 21.

Mehlsen J, Mehlsen AB. Diagnosis and treatment of syncope. Ugeskr Laeger. 2008 Feb 25;170(9):718-23. Review.

[No authors listed]. L-theanine . Monograph. Altern Med Rev. 2005;10(2):136-8.

Pandi-Perumal SR, Srinivasan V, Maestroni GJ, et al., Melatonin. FEBS J. 2006;273(13):2813-38.

Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002;21(6):495-505.

Skibska B, Jozefowicz-Okonkwo G, Goraca A. Protective effects of early administration of alpha-lipoic acid against lipopolysaccharide-induced plasma lipid peroxidation. Pharmacol Rep. 2006;58(3):399-404.

Ortega RM, Palencia A, Lopez-Sobaler AM. Improvement of cholesterol levels and reduction of cardiovascular risk via the consumption of phytosterols. Br J Nutr. 2006;96 Suppl 1:S89-93.

Yeh GY, Davis RB, Phillips RS. Use of Complementary Therapies in Patients With Cardiovascular Disease.Am J Cardiol. 2006;98(5):673-680.

Yoon JH, Baek SJ. Molecular targets of dietary polyphenols with anti-inflammatory properties. Yonsei Med J. 2005;46(5):585-96.

Review Date: 6/18/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
adam.com
RELATED INFORMATION
Conditions with Similar Symptoms
View Conditions
Herbs
Hawthorn
Licorice
Learn More About
Acupuncture
Biofeedback
Herbal medicine
Homeopathy
Hypnotherapy
Nutrition
1111 6th Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa 50314 (515) 247-3121
© Copyright 2011 Mercy Medical Center. All Rights Reserved