Fainting: Why do People Faint?
If you faint, falling hurts less if you're standing near something soft!
Fainting is not a one-size-fits-all occurrence
Fainting is a disconcerting occurrence that causes unconsciousness, usually momentary. If you've never fainted or seen someone else faint, you may want to know what causes it and what should be done for the victim...just in case.
First, let me tell you about my personal experiences with fainting.
I have fainted, or "passed out," as it's often described, several times during my life, beginning when I was 12 years old and fainted in a department store. That first swoon probably happened because I stood in a stationary position for some time with my knees locked. Members of wedding parties are usually warned not to lock their knees during the ceremony for this very reason. No one wants to hit the floor in the middle of "I do."
Since my first faint, it happened to me twice during advanced pregnancy, twice also when I became overheated outdoors in very hot summer temperatures, once from shock when I was told of a friend's sudden death, several times following panic attacks that caused hyperventilation (until I learned how to stop these by holding a paper back over my nose and mouth), and a couple of times when ill with a virus. Therefore, I'm personally acquainted with those reasons for fainting.
Hitherto, for me, there was some measure of warning that I was about to faint: breaking out in a cold sweat, muffled hearing or a buzzing in my ears, a feeling of sudden weakness before I actually fainted, everything slowly turning dark. In every case, this either gave me time to lie down or allowed someone nearby to stop me from hitting the floor.
The most recent episode, however, gave me no warning--not even a second to prepare. I was conscious, and then I was suddenly unconscious. When I fell, I apparently hit my head and face on everything hard and/or sharp-cornered in my vicinity on my way to the floor and landed on the hard tile surface. After that experience, which resulted in a trip to the hospital ER and my admission for tests, I learned more about various reasons for fainting and that you don't always get a one-second warning.
I've been known to brag about my healthy style of eating (ranging over several decades from vegetarian to vegan to ovo-pescetarian) and how I rarely get sick, which I attribute to my healthy diet. I almost never catch a cold. The same has been true--or was until this occurrence--of a contagious stomach virus. You see, my latest fainting episode began with a dreadful stomach "bug." After that sick-sick-sick experience, I no longer feel invulnerable.
One should never boast, as that is surely the best way to tempt fate.
This attack of illness--the norovirus, which usually happens in winter, but may strike in any season--woke me early in the morning. It was harsh and swift. I have tried to avoid throwing up as much as possible throughout my life. I even went through three pregnancies with almost no morning sickness. This time, however, there was no thwarting the violent urge.
Gross-out alert: Let me tell you that one way to avoid the unpleasantness of throwing up is to faint just as it begins so you aren't actually aware of the unpleasant part. Then, let me also warn you that the aftermath of fainting--while vomiting--and falling onto a hard tile bathroom floor, possibly bouncing off the door frame and a shelving unit with sharp corners on the way down, and lying in the...well, you-know-what...does not make up for missing the action part. Also, if you're going to faint and fall while tossing your cookies, it is best to fall forward (as I apparently did, though not by plan). That way, you won't aspirate the stuff into your lungs or choke to death.
The cautionary caption accompanying the fainting couch image is true--it's preferable to be standing near something soft when you faint. Then, fall forward so you won't choke. However, now that I've fainted without advance warning, I know you aren't guaranteed either a preference or soft landing. In fact, there are no guarantees.
The unconsiousness experienced when one faints is of short duration--usually a few seconds. Regaining consciousness to the horrendous pain in and on my head, face, shoulder, neck, arm, etc. and discovering what I was lying in on the floor was a tremendous shock to me.
I managed to regain my footing and managed some essential, though in no way thorough, cleanup tasks. I still felt very ill, so did only what had to be done in order to tolerate myself and my immediate surroundings. That accomplished, I finally looked into the bathroom mirror over the sink, only to nearly faint again. (Just kidding! But I was stunned by the sight of my own image in the glass.)
There were smears of blood seeping from my hairline and across the "goose-egg" already growing on my forehead. Another smear of blood highlighted my left cheekbone, and there was one on the edge of my lip. These bits of color were the only hues in the chalky pallor of my complexion, which is usually rosy. I had to hang onto the bathroom sink for support. I held a washcloth under the stream of cold water and squeezed out as much excess as possible in my weakened state. I then fumbled my way back to the bed, where I threw the wet cloth over the left side of my face and gave in to the fierce headache pounding beneath my skull.
Nausea soon reared its ugly head again, but I remembered the antiemetic I keep in the medicine cabinet. The first dose didn't end the nausea or stop the vomiting immediately, but a follow-up dose did reduce it to a bearable queasiness. Normally, this medication will put me to sleep like a light being turned off, but this time the intensity of the headache overcame any possibility of sedation.
My first thought when I saw my scary-looking visage in the mirror had been, Should I go to the ER?, but after I crawled into bed, I just wanted to stay there. The headache and nauseated misery lasted much of the day. During the afternoon, I dozed for a short time.
When I awoke from my nap, I looked at the digital clock on my bedside table, saw the time and was disoriented. Wasn't this where I came in? Was I reliving Groundhog Day? Then I thought I must have slept through an entire night until the next morning. Guess my brain did get a bit scrambled in that fall! I was soon alerted to the fact it was the same day, exactly twelve hours since my faint-and-fall episode with the exhortion. My bruises looked worse, and there was pain from my injuries competing with the stomach ailment. It was time to give in and go the hospital. A family member kindly drove me there.
When you arrive at a hospital emergency department, if you fit into the senior citizen category, and one side of your face looks as though you were mugged, there's no waiting for you in the room with all the chairs and people (at least it wasn't in that hospital). A check-in staff member gets the minimum facts about you (which was superfast because I'd had thyroid surgery in that hospital six months previously, and my info was already in the computer), and then pushes you in a wheelchair back to one of the examination cubicles.
As the patient, you get to lie on an uncomfortable gurney with no pillow, but at least you're lying down. Whoever accompanies you to the ER, on the other hand, gets to sit in a very hard, uncomfortable chair for the next six-and-one-half hours while tests are taken to ascertain how or whether you are injured. (It's my theory that every piece of furniture in an ER is purposely uncomfortable so people won't go there unless it's really, truly necessary.)
At 2:30 a.m., a nurse told me I was being admitted to the hospital for tests, and I sent my family member off into a stormy night while I was pushed on said gurney to my fourth floor room. By this time I was tired and even a bit sleepy, but still queasy and feeling other effects of a stomach virus, which an ER doctor attributed to norovirus.
You know what they say about trying to sleep in a hospital. Impossible! Doctors' orders were for a nurse to take my blood pressure frequently three different ways: while lying down, sitting up, and standing. In addition, I was tethered to an IV stand, and hooked up to a heavy portable heart monitor fastened to the front of my hospital gown and weighty enough to be irritating.
Let it be known that I think the electronics of the modern hospital bed are marvelous. As for comfort, forget it! The mattress was one inch thick, and this patient felt every lump and bump of the technological gadgetry beneath that mattress. A rule in hospitals appears to be that at least one light must stay on in a room all the time, and every time someone enters the room--which is frequently--the overhead light is turned on as well.
I don't mean to sound ungrateful--I'm not. I do appreciate that the staff quickly determined through modern biomedical devices there was no brain bleed or swelling, my heart was okay, as were my carotid arteries, and I'd not broken any bones. This was good news.
A staff doctor saw me before I was released and gavw me a diagnosis. He said it was " . . . probably a vagus nerve episode during while vomiting from norovirus." My fall resulted in contusions and a mild concussion. I received medication for nausea and stomach pain, with instructions to rest and recuperate. An appointment was made for me to see my primary care physician for followup two weeks later.
After recovering from stomach virus symptoms, my own curiosity (and faint--pardon the pun--feeling of nervousness that it might happen without warning again) drove me to do some research about fainting on medical websites: what fainting is, various causes of fainting, treatment of fainting, prevention of fainting. This is what I learned (some of which I already knew).
Result of fainting, falling, and striking unyielding objects on the way down
Facts about fainting
Fainting, for which the medical term is syncope, is the sudden loss of consciousness due to a lack of blood flow to the brain. Most fainting is triggered by the vagus nerve, which connects the digestive system to the brain and manages blood flow to the intestines. Some people have an over-excitable vagus nerve, and they may begin fainting as early as the age of 13 (I began at 12) and--oh, horrors!--are likely to continue fainting from time to time for the rest of their lives.
Actually, vomiting is one of the things listed as reasons that can cause the vagus nerve to pull too much blood from the brain. Other common causes for the vagus nerve to do this are straining while using the toilet, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, anemia, and psychological triggers (such as the person who faints at the sight of blood or has a panic attack), as well as pregnancy. Anything that causes blood pressure to drop can affect the vagus nerve.
After a person faints, the vagus nerve reverts to its normal "behavior," the heart starts beating faster to normalize low blood pressure, and the person quickly regains consciousness.
If you're nearby when someone faints, you can help by preventing the person from getting hurt. Even if you can't stop the fall completely, breaking it and easing the victim to the floor may prevent injury. Here are some first aid steps you should take if you witness someone faint:
1. Check for signs victim is breathing. Movement of the diaphram, coughing, feeling or hearing breath from the person's nose or mouth--all or any of these can alert you to continuing respiration. If it's absent, check the person's airway to be sure it's clear, then quickly call 911 or your local emergency number, and begin CPR, continuing until help arrives or the person responds.
2. If the fainting victim is breathing, you can help to restore blood flow to the brain. Do this by positioning the person on his or her back and raising the legs above heart level, which is about twelve inches. Loosen restrictive clothing, such as a collar, tie and/or belt. Don't let the person get up too quickly, as this may cause another fainting spell.
3. If the person was injured in a fall caused by fainting, use first aid or get the victim to a hospital emergency room. If scratches or cuts are bleeding, apply pressure to cause clotting. Clean the abrasions and bandage. However, more serious cuts and bumps require professional medical attention, particularly if they are on any part of the head. If the possibility of a head injury exists, don't delay, and don't move the victim if he or she is not alert. If the person who fainted is not able to stand without assistance, call for an ambulance and let the EMTs handle the situation.
It is important to discover whether or not the loss of consciousness is due to a simple episode of fainting caused by something triggering the vagus nerve to rush too much blood from the brain, or if it's the result of something else, such as shock from drastically lowered blood pressure (which may be caused by a variety of prescription drugs), heart rhythm changes, a heart attack, or a minor stroke.
Since some of the reasons for unconsciousness may be serious, anyone present when a person passes out should insist (and not take "no" for an answer) that a quick trip to the doctor's office or hospital emergency room is needed for safety. Waiting for hours before doing this is a risky idea. Some serious conditions , such as stroke or heart attack, must be treated quickly for best results and to prevent long-term health damage. The same is true for a head injury. Speed in getting emergency medical treatment is essential.
I have given a very simplified explanation of fainting--some of its causes and what actually may happen when a person faints. A more detailed medical description of what syncope entails can be found on legitimate medical websites or by asking one's personal physician to explain.
Can fainting be prevented? It depends on the cause. For example, if one is prone to the type of non-dangerous fainting, knows the cause, and is aware of warning signs, it may be possible to avert an actual fainting spell. At the very least, realizing what is about to happen may help prevent crashing to the floor.
Anyone who begins feeling faint, disoriented, or experiences any of the usual signs of an impending faint while driving a vehicle should immediately pull over out of traffic and turn off the ignition. Most people driving these days have a mobile phone within reach to call for help, and should not start driving again, even if the feeling of faintness passes. It is safer to wait for someone else to take over the wheel. A family member, friend, or colleague can go to the scene and drive. If necessary, a call to 911 will bring EMTs.
If medication is found to be the cause of a drop in blood pressure, it may be adjusted by the prescribing physician. Older people and active younger ones should be sure to take in sufficient fluids to prevent dehydration.
The elderly are more at risk for fainting due to many of the reasons listed (except pregnancy) and also more likely to sustain a serious head injury or broken bones. Anyone who feels dizzy upon suddenly standing from a chair or bed should make it a habit to slowly change from a seated or prone position to a standing one. Regular medical examinations can keep track of changes in heart rhythm, narrowing of the carotid arteries, and other conditions that may predispose a person to fainting or loss of consciousness.
Now that I've fainted with no warning, do I feel nervous about the possibility it may happen again? Yes, I do, but I'm not going to worry unduly about it. I'll be alert to the possibilities that may cause a fainting spell and do what I can to prevent another one.
There's a line in the poem, FULL MOON SONG, by Georgie Starbuck Galbraith, that warns, "And the heart is richer that chances pain than the heart in cotton wool."
According to the poet, trying to protect one's self from a broken heart is not worth all that must be given up to do so. By the same token, I believe that figuratively wrapping one's body in cotton wool because possibility of injury exists is too great a price to pay for safety. I don't want to miss living my life and enjoying it because I'm cowering on a soft mattress to avoid hitting the floor again. Life's too sweet--even the mundane parts--to waste.
To YOUR good health! JAYE
Don't lock your knees when standing!
Children in wedding parties are at risk for fainting
Minor reasons for fainting or feeling as though one might pass out include getting too hot, locking one's knees while standing a long time, hyperventilation, or low blood sugar from missing a meal. These fainting or faint-feeling "spells" are usually over quickly without lasting harm if the person isn't injured during the fall. However, other reasons for fainting may be more serious, and it's better to seek medical attention than to simply hope everything will be okay. Anyone who faints should see his or her doctor immediately or go to an emergency room (with someone else driving).
NOTE TO READERS: I will appreciate your comments, especially if you have a fainting experience of your own to share with readers.
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Avoid the Norovirus
- 5 Ways to Prevent Catching or Spreading a Stomach Virus (Norovirus)
The maleficent stomach virus, also known as norovirus, is an epidemic around the world that spreads like wildfire. Here are some tips to protect yourself from this miserable experience.
© 2011 Jaye Denman