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Cardiovascular Health Q1 2023

Fainting could be caused by something more serious — don’t ignore it

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Trudie Lobban MBE FRCP

Founder, STARS (Syncope Trust And Reflex Anoxic Seizures)

Fainting — or syncope — is a temporary loss of consciousness caused by a decrease in blood flow to the brain, and 50% of the population will faint at least once in their lifetime.


Thirty years ago, I started the charity STARS (Syncope Trust And Reflex Anoxic Seizures), following the diagnosis of my daughter with RAS (Reflex Anoxic Seizures) — the most severe form of fainting. 

Fainting is traumatic for the patient and never simple 

Most people are unaware that fainting could be a warning sign for a potentially serious and life-threatening heart condition. In many cases, fainting is the only sign of an abnormal heart rhythm which is a leading cause of SCA (sudden cardiac arrest) — a devastating condition that kills 100,000 people in the UK alone each year. A history of fainting is often the only symptom prior to SCA. 

Facts about fainting  

  • Approximately 30% of adults and 39% of children misdiagnosed with epilepsy have an underlying (and often fatal) heart rhythm defect, known as an arrhythmia. 
  • One in three visits to A&E are due to syncope but many are mistaken for epilepsy. 
  • Among the elderly, falls may be due to syncope. They often end up in residential care and lose their independence, but if syncope was diagnosed and treated with a pacemaker, they could remain independent and lead active lives. 

A history of fainting is often the only symptom prior to SCA.

The difficulty of diagnosis 

The challenge in correctly diagnosing syncope or RAS is that by the time the person sees a doctor or reaches a hospital, they have recovered consciousness. The symptoms experienced before losing consciousness can last only seconds or occasionally one to two minutes, and the period of unconsciousness itself can be even less, at 20–30 seconds. Full recovery, in most cases, is within one hour. Witness information is therefore important. 

Campaigns to help people get diagnosed 

To raise awareness of fainting and its possible link to fatal heart rhythm conditions, STARS launched ‘Take Fainting to Heart,’ a campaign encouraging people to take fainting more seriously and contact their GP after unexplained unconsciousness. As per guidelines, they can then have a 12-lead ECG to monitor the rhythm of the heart and ensure a heart rhythm specialist reviews the results. 

Moreover, The Blackouts Checklist was produced to help individuals and their doctors reach the correct diagnosis for any unexplained consciousness.  

For three decades, STARS has worked to raise awareness and educate about the importance of fainting and its links to possible heart rhythm conditions and to provide much-needed support to patients and their caregivers. 

If you wish to find out more about the medical conditions mentioned, the charity and the work they do, please visit: stars.org.uk.

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