You likely know syncope by the far more common descriptions of fainting and passing out. However you describe it, syncope simply means that a person has suffered a temporary loss of consciousness and posture. It’s usually related to a temporarily insufficient blood flow to the brain. It’s a common problem, accounting for 3 percent of emergency room visits and 6 percent of hospital admissions.

What causes syncope?

Syncope has numerous causes, including emotional stress, pain, pooling of blood in the legs due to sudden changes in body position, the sight of blood, as well as dehydration and exhaustion. Particularly with men, syncope may occur during violent coughing spells because it can lead to rapid changes in blood pressure. It also may result from several cardiac, neurologic, psychiatric, metabolic and lung disorders. It also may be a side effect of some medicines. Though it’s always wise to seek medical attention after any fainting episode, be aware that some forms of syncope suggest a serious disorder. They include fainting that:

  • Occurs during exercise
  • Is associated with palpitations or irregularities of the heart
  • Are related to a family history of recurrent syncope or sudden death

The evaluation of syncope begins when a physician conducts a physical examination and learns more about a patient’s medical history. It can sometimes involve more specialized tests such as prolonged rhythm monitoring, stress testing, echocardiography, carotid doppler imaging, tilt table testing and possible referral to a cardiac electrophysiologist for invasive testing.