Vasovagal Attack or Syncope: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

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vasovagal attackHave you been experiencing fainting spells or perhaps dizziness that makes you feel like you are going to faint? This may be a vasovagal attack, also known as vasovagal syncope. It may occur at times of great emotional stress or in response to the sight of blood.

Vasovagal attacks can happen to some people with little notice, but there are ways to prevent spells from occurring. We will examine vasovagal causes and what steps to take to prevent fainting episodes.

What Does Vasovagal Attack Mean?

A vasovagal attack happens when your heart rate lowers, which leads the blood vessels to expand and your blood pressure to fall. The blood will gather in the blood vessels in your leg, restricting oxygen from reaching your brain. As a result, you may faint or lose consciousness temporarily.

This involuntary reaction of the nervous system involves the vagus nerve, which is responsible for slowing heart rate. Passing through the throat and larynx muscle, the vagus nerve comprises of two nerves but is referred to as singular. It is the longest of the cranial nerves as it runs from the brain stem to the colon.

As part of the autonomic nervous system, the vagus nerve affects both the blood pressure and heart rate, allowing fainting to happen. This can happen to anyone of any age but is commonly seen among young children and young adults. The elderly population is also at risk.

What Causes Vasovagal Syncope?

Vasovagal syncope causes are certain triggers that vary among those who experience this condition. The ones previously mentioned, stress and the sight of blood, are the two most common, followed by:

  • Exposure to hot temperatures
  • Prolonged standing
  • Fear
  • Muscle strain (difficult bowel movements)
  • Extreme pain
  • Fasting
  • Extended bed rest
  • Anemia
  • Heart disease
  • Sudden injury
  • Trauma

Vasovagal Attack Risk Factors and Complications

Those at risk for vasovagal attack symptoms may or may not have existing health problems. It can affect three percent of the male population and 3.5 percent of females with an increased risk of six percent in both sexes after the age of 75. While not everyone with the following risk factors may experience a vasovagal attack, there is a higher risk with:

  • Blood collecting in legs
  • Experiencing a frightful moment
  • Alcohol use
  • Exhaustion
  • Hunger
  • Extreme stress
  • Severe pain
  • Enduring extreme heat
  • Heat exposure

A vasovagal attack is a harmless event health-wise; however, it can have dangerous consequences such as:

  • Accident if it occurs while driving
  • Injury from a fall
  • Permanent disability from fall injury
  • Decreased quality of life

Vasovagal Attack Symptoms

There are vasovagal syndrome symptoms that may alert you to the onset of a fainting spell. If you do faint, it’s usually for a short period of mere seconds. After fainting, it is recommended to take your time returning to your feet as you may faint again if done too quickly.

  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Yawning
  • Weak pulse
  • Vision is blurry or tunnel-focused
  • Overheating
  • Outbreak of a cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Pale skin

People near you may notice signs of fainting as well. Their perspective may note dilated pupils or sudden involuntary body movements.

How to Diagnose Vasovagal Attack

If you find yourself vulnerable to fainting spells, a visit to the doctor may result in several tests to detect any heart condition issues. These may include a stress test, an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram, and blood tests (close your eyes). If no heart problem is found, further testing may be the tilt table test where your heart rate and blood pressure are monitored as the table you lie on is moved in different degrees of angles.

Treating and Preventing Vasovagal Attack

As with many symptoms, vasovagal attack treatments are directed at any underlying cause determined by your physician. When it is the lone condition, there are treatments to control episodes and manage accompanying symptoms. This can be done with medication, therapy, and, on a rare occasion, surgery to implant a pacemaker.

Many patients with vasovagal syncope can manage and treat symptoms with lifestyle changes and awareness. Some steps to treat and prevent future fainting spells include:

  • Maintain hydration.
  • Eat small, well-balanced meals.
  • Limit consumption of red meat and carbohydrates.
  • Use herbs that promote circulation such as ginger, cayenne, licorice, and ginkgo biloba.
  • Reduce sodium intake.
  • Consume vitamin C and vitamin E.
  • Avoid alcohol use.
  • Use compression stockings when standing for long periods of time.
  • Avoid spending extended time in hot weather or saunas.

If you feel your blood pressure is dropping, there are a few exercises to perform on the spot to avoid fainting such as:

  • Stand with one leg raised.
  • Squat down with knees bent.
  • Lean forward at the waist.
  • Shift weight from one leg to the other if standing.
  • Lay down with head elevated.

A recent study led by cardiologist Marta Bavolarova suggests patients with vasovagal syncope may be able to stop from fainting by sniffing or gasping. The Louis Pasteur University Hospital researcher presented these findings to the European Society of Cardiology in 2015. The team focused on two women (ages 55 and 62) diagnosed with vasovagal syncope in determining whether a fainting spell could be stopped.

When the patients sniffed or gasped twice with a closed mouth before exhaling, an electrocardiogram monitoring their blood pressure did not drop, prompting the women to avoid fainting. The study also found the act of crossing legs while gripping the opposite hand also increased heart rate and blood pressure, thereby preventing fainting. More research is currently being conducted.

Living with vasovagal syncope can be scary, but it is manageable with exercise, diet, and knowing your triggers for fainting spells. If you find it is not possible to prevent such attacks, try the aforementioned exercises. The best treatment is to lie down with your legs elevated at a high angle. You can also sit on a chair and place your head between your knees. Research shows there is a 30% risk of having an episode once it occurs.


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“Navarro, A., “Study Finds Sniffing and Grasping Can Prevent Fainting,” Tech Times, October 19, 2015;, last accessed March 10, 2017.