Syncope (Fainting)

Syncope is one of our specialties:

Our Emergency Room doctors use an internal hotline to confer with an Aurora syncope specialist — day or night — to make sure you get just the right treatment.

Overview

What Is Syncope?

Syncope (pronounced SINK-oh-pee) is the medical term for fainting or temporarily passing out.

It happens when the amount of blood flowing to your brain suddenly drops. Your body “resets” itself by prompting you to lose consciousness, usually just for a minute or two. You may feel slightly confused for a short while after you regain consciousness.

Syncope can be caused by something easily treatable, like dehydration, or by something life-threatening like a dangerous, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

World-Class Care

Aurora’s Specialized Syncope Treatment

Because many serious, underlying medical conditions can cause fainting, our experts take extra steps to pinpoint what made you pass out. If you or a loved one is brought to one of our Emergency Rooms (ERs) after a temporary loss of consciousness, your expert care will include:

  • Consistent ER practices: Our ER staff members treat fainting episodes very seriously. All of our facilities—whether you are in Milwaukee or an outlying area—have coordinated procedures for examining you if you have fainted. We will carefully examine you to determine if you have a dangerous health condition and/or need to be hospitalized.
  • Dedicated syncope hotline: Your ER health care provider can call an Aurora syncope specialist (an electrophysiologist), day or night, while you are in the ER. Our doctors then confer about your condition and treatment. These professionals also work as a team to make sure you are stable if we plan to discharge you.
  • Caring follow-up: We will refer to you an Aurora syncope expert or other health care provider for a follow-up exam, usually within a few weeks of your visit to the ER.
  • Heart and nervous system expertise: Aurora is home to internationally renowned heart, vascular and neurological experts. If we suspect that an underlying heart, circulatory or nervous system disorder is causing you to lose consciousness, we can quickly call in one of our specialists to see you. Learn more about emergency heart care at Aurora.

Symptoms

When Should You See a Doctor for Syncope?

If you have syncope, you occasionally faint or pass out. That is the main symptom.

However, you may experience several other symptoms before you faint:

  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lightheaded feeling, as if you might fall
  • Cold, clammy sweating
  • Vision changes – everything appears blurred, you see spots or you get “tunnel vision,” meaning you only see what is directly in front of you
  • Pale skin
  • Feeling drowsy for no reason, yawning

Causes

What Causes Fainting?

Syncope, or fainting, is a common condition. About 3% of men and 3.5% of women will faint at least once in their lives, according to the Framingham Heart Study.

Syncope occurs when your brain does not get enough blood, due to a change in your blood pressure, your heart rate or the amount of blood in certain parts of your body. It can be triggered by something easily correctable, such as forgetting to eat or drink, or it can be a symptom of a more serious condition.

Common causes of fainting episodes include:

  • Special situations:
    • Being dehydrated
    • Going a long time without food and experiencing low blood sugar
    • Undergoing intense pain
    • Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol
    • Coughing very hard
    • Heart rhythm abnormalities
    • Underlying heart condition
  • Changing physical positions: Moving quickly from lying down to standing up can cause some people’s blood pressure to drop and trigger fainting. The underlying cause may be dehydration or a medication side effect.
  • Emotional shock: A traumatic—or in some cases, extremely happy—event can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to suddenly drop, so less blood goes to your brain.
  • Heart or blood vessel conditions: These disorders often require medication, surgery or other treatments by Aurora specialists. Disorders that restrict blood flow to your brain can include:
  • Neurological disorders: These conditions usually require medication, surgery or additional treatment by Aurora specialists. They include:
    • Migraine headaches (occasionally)
    • Seizures
    • Strokes or mini-strokes
    • Other nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s disease

Diagnosis & Treatment

Thorough Care for Syncope

If your medical team determines that your fainting episode is very likely a one-time event, they will reassure you of that right away. Your doctor will also spend time educating you about fainting and common causes, so you can avoid this uncomfortable experience in the future.

Syncope Tests

If you have a fainting episode that is not easily explained, your Aurora Health Care provider may order some diagnostic tests to get more information. Common tests include:

  • Tilt-table test: Also called a head-up tilt test or HUT, this procedure moves you from lying down to standing up and monitors your blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system reaction. Learn more about tilt table testing.
  • Blood-volume determination: This test measures the amount of blood in your body and the amount of plasma and red blood cells in your blood.
  • Hemodynamic testing: This series of tests measures how well your body transports oxygen through your blood.
  • Electrophysiology testing: This type of test is a catheter-based procedure (involves the use of thin, flexible tube) to record and stimulate the electrical system of your heart. Electrophysiology testing can help see if a heart rhythm disorder may have contributed to your syncope.

Syncope Treatment

Your doctor will work with you on a customized treatment plan that may include:

  • Dietary changes: You may need to eat more often, drink more fluids, eat more potassium or sodium, or stay away from caffeine and/or alcohol.
  • Practical adjustments: Raising the head of your bed while you sleep and wearing compression stockings regularly can improve your blood circulation.
  • Treating underlying conditions: We provide comprehensive treatment for all heart or blood vessel disorders.
  • Medication: Your doctor may prescribe drugs to treat an underlying disorder that is causing you to faint. However, it is unlikely that you will be given medication specifically to stop fainting spells.
  • Procedures: Additional treatment may involve pacemaker or defibrillator implants and catheter ablation of heart rhythm problems. (Learn more about our Atrial Fibrillation Ablation Center.)

Risk Factors

Who Is at Risk of Fainting?

You may be at a higher risk of fainting if you have any of the following health conditions:

  • Anemia, a blood disorder
  • Aortic stenosis, the narrowing of your heart’s aortic valve
  • Arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythm
  • Heart attack
  • Low blood pressure, or hypotension
  • Long QT syndrome (LQTS), a heart rhythm disorder
  • Preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication
  • Pulmonary hypertension, high blood pressure in lung arteries
  • Mitral valve prolapse, when a heart valve does not close properly
  • Neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke, lack of blood to the brain
  • Vertigo, an inner ear disorder

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