Thanks to romance novels and fairy tales, fainting is often considered what happens to a delicate damsel facing something dastardly. But faints can happen to anyone.
“True fainting,” says Natalie Sanders, director of the Faint & Fall Clinic at University of Utah Health Care, "is a non-traumatic event where a person suddenly loses consciousness but wakes up fairly quickly."
Faints and subsequent falls are typically related to a drop in blood pressure, which results in a decrease of blood flow to the brain. This drop could be heart-related (like feeling dizzy when you stand up too fast), or a “common” faint (dizziness when you see blood), or result from multiple causes (including reactions to medication).
It’s important to consider faints and falls in tandem because a fall often represents a faint or a near-fainting event, which are more common as we get older. One-third of patients 65 years old and older will experience a fall, says Sanders. But just because falling is common doesn’t mean it’s normal. “Falling is not a normal part of aging,” she says. “It’s a marker of decline.”
And the risks associated with falls are no laughing matter. The potential injuries, such as broken bones and concussions, can have a severe impact on patients, even the younger ones. For older patients, the consequences can be even direr. Those who suffer from broken hips after falls are 50 percent more likely to die in the following year and are much more likely to go into a nursing home. That loss of independence can have a lasting effect on quality of life. And, if a patient’s faints and falls are heart-related, the risk of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) increases.
Fortunately, there are ways to identify and counteract oncoming faints. Common warning signs can include lightheadedness and tunnel vision, feeling sweaty and clammy, and feeling like your heart is flip-flopping in your chest (palpitations). If you start to feel a faint coming on, Sanders recommends sitting down and putting your head between your knees, or even laying down, to increase blood flow back to the brain. It’s important to get on the ground to lower the chance of a fall-related injury.
“I tell patients, ‘I guarantee that you’ll bring a lot less attention to yourself if you sit down in the middle of the grocery aisle, as opposed to fainting,’” she says.
Faints and falls can be prevented through regular exercise — especially balance-related regimens — and boosting environmental safety at home and at work. Keep your home well-lit. Mark obstacles like stairs. And remove potential trip hazards, including rugs.
“The best treatment for falls is prevention,” says Sanders, who leads a community fall-prevention program.
If you have experienced a faint or a fall, Sanders recommends being evaluated by a health care professional as soon as possible. Patients should speak to their primary care physician or contact the Faint & Fall Clinic at University of Utah Hospital at (801) 213-2033 or visit their site to schedule an evaluation.