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Faint, but Fit

Fainting, defined as a short period of unconsciousness caused by temporary restriction or failure of blood supply to the brain, can happen for numerous reasons.

The most common causes of fainting - the medical name of which is syncope - include physical injury, emotional shock, profuse bleeding or even just standing still for a long period. Attacks usually come on gradually and are often preceeded by light-headedness, blurred vision or sweating.

Although most fainting episodes are followed by a prompt and full recovery without any after-effects, it's always worthwhile to ask your doctor to check you over if you're experienced one to make sure that there's no underlying cause that needs treatment. However, don't be surprised when all the checks and tests have been carried out after a fainting spell and you are told that no specific reason was found to explain why you fainted in the first place.

In most instances, a faint is simply brought about by gravity. Because the head is at the very top of the arterial system that supplies blood throughout the whole body, this means that if the blood pleasure is temporarily lowered for any reason, the first place where the effect will be felt is in the brain, which may lead to a faint. As to why the blood pressure should drop enough to bring about a faint, there are a number of possible explanations for this - such as:

  • If you've been standing still for a long time, blood may pool in the legs, so reducing that available to be pumped elsewhere.
  • The blood pressure of an otherwise perfectly healthy person can also be rapidly reduced by what's called a vasovagal attack - a mechanism in which sudden pain or a shocking or upsetting event, sight or sound stimulates the vagus nerve network to slow down the heart rate. Some people are particularly susceptible to these forms of fainting attacks which are generally preceded by cold sweats and nausea.
  • Older people who have rheumatism may also faint if they tilt head back suddenly as this movement can kink blood vessels in the neck joints, so reducing the blood supply to the brain just enough to cause a faint.
  • Fainting can also be caused by such ordinary things as standing up suddenly after sitting or lying down or by such getting out of bed after having spent some time there recuperating from illness.

What to do when you feel it coming

In most cases, a faint is preceded by one or more warning signs: you may feel dizzy, somewhat unwell, unsteady and have visual disturbances or experience weakness that's either general or confined to the lower limbs. Quite often, the person affected may be aware that he or she is about to faint. Should you experience any of these warning signs, you may be able to prevent an actual faint by following these suggestions:

  1. Loosen any tight clothing that may be interfering with your circulation or breathing.
  2. If you're standing, sit down. Put your feet on the floor, spreading your knees somewhat apart. Place your head as low as possible between your knees. This position will make it easier for your heart to pump more blood to the brain. Keep taking deep breaths while trying to relax. If you're standing and the situation is such that you can't sit down such as a soldier on parade, you can prevent blood from accumulating in your legs by frequently clenching and relaxing in the muscles in the toes, calves and thighs.
  3. Dab some cold water on your face.
  4. Open a window to increase ventilation. A stuffy atmosphere combined with a feeling of claustrophobia often triggers a faint.

Standing still for a prolonged period, like cops on VVIP duty do, can cause fainting

MUch more rarely, fainting may be a sign of other diseases. If the fainting is linked with temporary speech difficulties or also marked with weakness in the limbs. then it may indicate that there is an obstruction in the blood flow in the vessels that pass through the neck to the brain. Faints of this type are in fact a form of a transient ischaemic attack.

Another reason why someone may faint is because the flow of blood to the brain is temporarily reduced to an inadequate level because of irregularity of the heartbeat, most probably due to a disruption of the electrical impulses that control heart rhythm.

A single fainting episode - especially if there is an obvious reason for why it happened - is in itself by no means evidence of anything seriously amiss, it more than likely being just one of those things that happen to most people now and then. However, if the fainting episodes repeat, then, they need to be investigated by your doctor.

How can you help someone who has fainted

If you're near someone who has just fainted or who thinks they're about to, take these practical steps to help them:

If the faint appears imminent, assist the affected persons to sit down, getting them to place their head between their legs. Alternatively, if the circumstances allow this, make them lie down flat on their back with their legs raised.

If the victim has already fainted, make sure that they are safe from any possible nearby risks, such as traffic, open fires,, electrical cables, moving machinery etc. Make certain that the victim's airway is open. Loosen any restrictive clothing that might interfere with circulation or breathing.

Check that the victim is breathing properly and also check the pulse.

As the victim regains consciousness, dissuade them from getting up immediately, but convince them that they should continue to lie down for ten minutes or so to ensure that a second attack does not occur. Gradually help them to a sitting position.

Contrary to a much cherished popular belief, don't give alcohol to someone coming out of a faint. The only liquid given should be sips of cold water and even this only when full consciousness within a couple of minutes, medical help should be sought.

It' s also worth keeping in mind that what at first may appear like a fainting episode to a bystander could in fact also be an epileptic attack, the two types of incidents often looking remarkably similar at their onset. Epilepsy, of course, is the name given to a number of brain function disorders characterised by sudden and recurrent attacks or fits as the brain's normal electrical activity is temporarily disturbed. These attacks are due to completely different causes than fainting, but the first aid that should be administered is much the same as for a fainting fit and you should follow the guidelines suggested above.

There are, however, some differences between a fainting fit and an epileptic attack: Because someone having an epileptic attack also often has convulsions that cause them to thrash or move about while unconscious, it's particularly important to protect them from injury by clearing a safe space around them. As the victim lapses naturally into the sleep stage that generally follows an epileptic attack, don't try to wake them up. When they do eventually wake up of their own accord, make sure that they have regained full consciousness before leaving them on their own.

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