September 6, 2017

Fainting Spells

Are they genetic?

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q: I am 35 years of age. In my teens I experienced a few fainting spells under stressful circumstances. Do I need to worry about future fainting for me and for my children? Are there going to be more problems as I get older?

A: Fainting can be a frightening experience. Fortunately, especially at a younger age, faints are more frightening than dangerous, except for the chances of injury should a fall occur. Most commonly, faints occur when there is a temporary decrease or interruption in the blood supply to the brain. The technical term for a fainting spell is syncope.

Syncope is very common, affecting about 25 percent of the population. While most people with syncope manage the condition easily, in approximately 1 percent, faints can occur frequently, which increases danger. If fainting occurs, consult your physician to ensure that there are no underlying or precipitating factors that need to be treated.

The commonest faint is termed vasovagal syncope (vvs). It occurs mainly under the age of 35 years and tends to decrease with age. Research shows that there may be a genetic component, and hence an inherited tendency to vasovagal syncope. The actual triggers may not be genetically determined.

The cause is overstimulation of the vagus nerve, which slows the heartrate and decreases the blood pressure. This reduces the blood volume returning to the heart. Blood flow to the brain is diminished, and fainting follows. There can be various triggers for vasovagal syncope, including:

  • Emotional stress
  • Sight of an injection needle or blood
  • Standing still for prolonged periods, e.g., on a parade ground
  • Straining at stool or during urination

It’s important to exclude disorders such as epilepsy, which is characteristically associated with convulsions (seizures), tongue-biting, and incontinence of urine. The patient has no memory of the actual event. Epileptic attacks may also be preceded by a characteristic sensation (taste, smell) called an aura, which may serve as a warning in approximately two-thirds of cases.

Do you need to worry about the future for you and your children as far as syncope is concerned? Often young people “outgrow” the problem. As we age, a new set of issues arises. Our blood vessels become stiffer and adapt less readily to changes in position, such as standing up after sitting. This can be exaggerated when there is some dehydration, or when on medications for high blood pressure or an enlarged prostate. Rhythm and heart valve disorders of the heart may also lead to syncope. Vasovagal syncope is not a predictor of these conditions.

Whatever our circumstances, and our level of brokenness and fragility, we can rely on our faithful, caring heavenly Father:

“He [the Lord] gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. . . . They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:29-31). No need to worry!

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.