The Common Faint (Vasodepressor Syncope)
This is the common faint, seen mainly in young individuals. A familial predisposition is well known (Mathias et al). The evocative factors are usually strong emotion, physical injury—particularly to viscera (testicles, gut)—or other factors (see below). As described earlier, the vasodilatation of adrenergically innervated "resistance vessels" is postulated to lead to a reduction in peripheral vascular resistance, but cardiac output fails to exhibit the compensatory rise that normally occurs in hypotension. Some physiologic studies suggest that the dilatation of intramuscular vessels, innervated by beta-adrenergic fibers, may be more important than dilatation of the splanchnic ones.
Skin vessels, in contrast, are constricted. Vagal stimulation may be superimposed either as a primary or a reactive phenomenon (hence the term vasovagal) causing bradycardia and leading possibly to a slight further drop in blood pressure. Other vagal effects are perspiration, increased peristaltic activity, nausea, and salivation. However, bradycardia probably contributes little to the hypotension and syncope. The term vasovagal was used originally by Thomas Lewis. As Lewis himself pointed out, atropine, "while raising the pulse rate up to and beyond normal levels during the attack, leaves the blood pressure below normal and the patient still pale and not fully conscious."
The vasodepressor faint occurs (1) in normal health under the influence of strong emotion, particularly in some susceptible individuals (sight of blood or an accident) or in conditions that favor peripheral vasodilatation, e.g., hot, crowded rooms ("heat syncope"), especially if the person is hungry or tired or has had alcoholic drinks; (2) during a painful illness or after bodily injury (especially of the abdomen or genitalia), as a consequence of fright, pain, and other factors (where pain is involved, the vagal element tends to be more prominent in the genesis of the faint); and (3) during exercise in some sensitive persons (see further on).
The clinical manifestations of fainting attacks vary to some extent, depending on their mechanisms and the settings in which they occur. The most common types of faint—namely, vasodepressor and vasovagal syncope, conform more or less to the following pattern. In these types, which are taken in this section as one characteristic manifestation, the patient is usually in the upright position at the beginning of the attack, either sitting or standing. Certain subjective symptoms, the prodrome, mark the onset of the faint. The person feels queasy, is assailed by a sense of giddiness and apprehension, may sway, and sometimes develops a headache. What is most noticeable at the beginning of the attack is pallor or an ashen-gray color of the face; often the face and body become bathed in cool perspiration. Salivation, epigastric distress, nausea, and sometimes vomiting may accompany these symptoms, and the patient tries to suppress them by yawning, sighing, or breathing deeply. Vision may dim or close in concentrically, the ears may ring, and it may be impossible to think clearly ("grayout"). This serves to introduce the common faint that is known to all physicians and most laypersons.
The duration of the prodromal symptoms is variable from a few minutes to only a few seconds. If, during the prodromal period, the person is able to lie down promptly, the attack may be averted before complete loss of consciousness occurs; otherwise, consciousness is lost and the patient falls to the ground. The more or less deliberate onset of this type of syncope enables patients to lie down or at least to protect themselves as they slump. A hurtful fall is exceptional in the young, although an elderly person may be injured.
The depth and duration of unconsciousness vary. Sometimes the person is not completely oblivious to his surroundings; he may still hear voices or see the blurred outlines of people. More often there is a complete lack of awareness and responsiveness. The patient lies motionless, with skeletal muscles fully relaxed. Sphincteric control is maintained in nearly all cases. The pupils are dilated. The pulse is thin and slow or cannot be felt; or they may be tachycardic, the systolic blood pressure is reduced (to 60 mm Hg or less as a rule), and breathing may be almost imperceptible. It is the brief period of hypotension and cerebral hypoperfusion that is the unifying feature of the various forms of syncope. The depressed vital functions, striking facial pallor, and unconsciousness almost simulate death.
Once the patient is horizontal, the flow of blood to the brain is restored. The strength of the pulse soon improves and color begins to return to the face. Breathing becomes quicker and deeper. Then the eyelids flutter and consciousness is quickly regained. However, should unconsciousness persist for 15 to 20 s, convulsive movements may occur. The term convulsive syncope has been used to describe this phenomenon, but it has also been used for an authentic seizure caused by a prolonged period of brain hypoxia. These movements, which are often mistaken for a seizure, usually take the form of brief, mild, clonic jerks of the limbs and trunk and twitchings of the face or a tonic extension of the trunk and clenching of the jaw. Occasionally, the extensor rigidity and jerking flexor movements are more severe, but very rarely is there urinary incontinence or biting of the tongue, features that characterize a generalized tonic-clonic convulsion.
Gastaut and Fischer-Williams used the oculocardiac inhibitory reflex to study the pattern of electroencephalographic (EEG) changes in syncope. They found that the heightened vagal discharge produced by compression of the eyeballs (oculovagal reflex, a cause of syncope in acute glaucoma) could produce brief periods of cardiac arrest and syncope. This effect was produced in 20 of 100 patients who had a history of syncopal attacks. These investigators found that after a 7- to 13-s period of cardiac arrest, there was a loss of consciousness, pallor, and muscle relaxation and changes in EEG activity. Toward the end of this period, runs of bilaterally synchronous theta and delta waves appeared in the EEG, predominantly in the frontal lobes; in some patients there were one or more myoclonic jerks, synchronous with the slow waves. If the hypotension persisted beyond 14 or 15 s, the EEG became flat. This period of electrical silence lasted for 10 to 20 s and was sometimes accompanied by a generalized tonic spasm with incontinence. Following the spasm, heartbeats and large-amplitude delta waves reappeared, and after another 20 to 30 s, the EEG reverted to normal. It is noteworthy that rhythmic clonic seizures or epileptiform EEG activity was not observed at any time during the periods of cardiac arrest, syncope, and tonic spasm.
From the moment that consciousness is regained, there is a correct perception of the environment. Confusion, headache, and drowsiness, the common sequelae of a convulsive seizure, do not follow a syncopal attack. Nevertheless, the patient often feels weak and groggy after a vasodepressor faint and, by arising too soon, may precipitate another faint.
The clinical features of cardiac and carotid sinus syncope are in some ways the same as those described above except that the onset may be absolutely abrupt, without any warning symptoms, and is independent of the patient being in an upright posture. The clinical particulars of these and other forms of syncope are described further on.
This term refers to all forms of syncope that result directly from the vascular effects of neural signals coming from the central nervous system. In essence, all the types of syncope in this category are "vasovagal," meaning a combination of vasodepressor and vagal effects in varying proportions; the only differences are in the stimuli that elicit the reflex response.
A number of stimuli, mostly from the viscera but some of psychologic or emotional origin, are capable of eliciting this response, which consists of a reduction or loss of sympathetic vascular tone coupled with a heightened vagal activity. The nucleus of the tractus solitarius (NTS) in the medulla integrates these afferent stimuli and normal baroreceptor signals with the efferent sympathetic mechanisms that maintain vascular tone (see further on and Chap. 26).
Several lines of study suggest that there are disturbances of both sympathetic control of vascular tone and also of the responsiveness of baroreceptors in neurogenic syncope, but the precise mechanisms are unclear. By the use of microneurography, Wallin and Sundlof have demonstrated an increase in sympathetic outflow in peripheral nerves just prior to syncope, as would be expected; however, this activity then ceases at the onset of fainting. Unmyelinated (postganglionic sympathetic) fibers cease firing during vasovagal fainting at a point when the blood pressure falls below 80/40 mm Hg and the pulse, below 60. This would signify that there is an initial attempt to compensate for the falling blood pressure, following which there is a centrally mediated withdrawal of sympathetic activity. Which one of these mechanisms (perhaps both) is responsible for syncope is not clear. More recently, Bechir and colleagues showed that muscle sympathetic activity as assessed using microneurography is increased in the resting state in patients with orthostatic hypotension and, importantly, does not increase further with venous pooling (induced by lower-body negative pressure). Moreover, in the same patients, the response of the cardiac baroreceptors to pooling was significantly diminished. These data are only partially in agreement with those of Wallin and Sundlof, and they are not in accord with an initial increase in sympathetic activity prior to syncope.
There is agreement that peripheral vascular resistance is greatly reduced just prior to and at the onset of fainting. This drop in resistance has been attributed to an initial adrenergic discharge that, at high levels, causes a vasodilatation (rather than constriction) in intramuscular blood vessels. High levels of epinephrine and the vasodilating effects of nitric oxide acting on vascular endothelium, as well as greatly augmented levels of circulating acetylcholine during syncope, also have been invoked as additional or intermediary factors, but all remain speculative. In the current view, the drop in blood pressure is the result of a transient but excessive activity of sympathetic nerves that paradoxically leads to vascular dilatation in muscle and viscera from an imbalance between beta-adrenergic and alpha-adrenergic activity peripherally.
It has been further suggested, on the basis of reasonable but inconclusive physiologic evidence, that the early sympathotonic attempt to maintain blood pressure leads to overly vigorous contractions of the cardiac chambers and that this, in turn, acts as the afferent stimulus for withdrawal of sympathetic tone in common fainting (see "Neurocardiogenic Syncope," later).
Also of interest are abnormalities in the response to hypocarbia of patients who are prone to syncope. Norcliffe-Kaufmann and colleagues recorded a greater-than-normal reduction in cerebral blood flow velocity (gauged by transcranial Doppler) and an excessively reduced vascular resistance in the forearm in response to hypocarbia, and the opposite reactions to hypercarbia. They relate the degree of these changes to variations in orthostatic tolerance among patients and suggest that the two aforementioned changes relate to decreased cerebral blood flow that may engender syncope.
This entity, a component or perhaps a subtype of vasodepressor syncope, has received attention as a cause of otherwise unexplained fainting in healthy and athletic children and young adults. As mentioned earlier, it may be the final precipitant in the common vasodepressor faint, and the term is used synonymously with vasovagal or vasodepressor syncope by some authors.
Oberg and Thoren were the first to observe that the left ventricle itself can be the source of neurally mediated syncope in much the same way as the carotid sinus when stimulated, produces vasodilatation and bradycardia. During acute blood loss in cats, they noted a paradoxical bradycardia that was preceded by increased afferent activity in autonomic fibers arising from the ventricles of the heart, a reaction that could be eliminated by sectioning these nerves. This concept of the heart as the afferent source of vasodepressor reflexes had been suggested earlier by Bezold, as well as by Jarisch and Zoterman, and came to be known as the Bezold-Jarisch reflex. The inferoposterior wall of the left ventricle is the site of most of the subendocardial mechanoreceptors that are responsible for the afferent impulses to the nucleus tractus solitarius.
For this mechanism to become active, very vigorous cardiac contractions must occur in the presence of deficient filling of the cardiac chambers (hence "neurocardiogenic"). In the simple faint, an initial burst of sympathetic activity is thought to precipitate physiologic circumstances of excessive cardiac contraction. Echocardiographic findings of a diminished ventricular chamber size and vigorous contractions just prior to syncope support this notion (the "empty-heart syndrome"). The remaining baroreceptors in the aorta may be responsible for the increased afferent activity.
According to Kaufmann, a proclivity to primary neurocardiogenic syncope can be identified by the finding of delayed fainting when the patient is placed at a 60-degree upright position on a tilt table. After approximately 10 min of upright posture, the blood pressure drops below 100 mm Hg; soon thereafter, the patient complains of dizziness and sweating and subsequently faints. In contrast, patients with primary sympathetic failure will faint soon after upward tilting. Half of patients with unexplained syncope display a delayed tilt-table reaction, but it is also seen in 5 percent of controls (see "Tilt-Table Testing" further on). The value of isoproterenol as a cardiac stimulant and peripheral vasodilator to enhance the effect of upright posture and expose neurocardiogenic syncope during the tilt-table test is controversial.
Aerobic exercise, particularly running, is known to induce fainting in some persons, a trait that may become apparent in late childhood or later and may be familial. There is nausea as well as other presyncopal symptoms; the faint can be avoided by discontinuing exercise or not exceeding a threshold of effort set by the patient himself. Such persons do not seem unduly sensitive to nonaerobic exercise and have no recognizable electrocardiographic or structural heart problems. They have a predilection to faint with prolonged tilt-table testing and with isoproterenol infusion, suggesting that this represents a form of neurocardiogenic syncope. For this reason, these patients may benefit from beta-adrenergic-blocking drugs if given under careful supervision. As discussed further on, exercise can also precipitate syncope in patients with a number of underlying cardiac conditions (myocardial ischemia, long QT syndrome, aortic outflow obstruction, cardiomyopathy, structural chamber anomalies, exercise-induced ventricular tachycardia, and, less often, supraventricular tachycardias).
Athletes who faint unpredictably during exercise pose a particularly difficult problem. Obviously those found to have serious heart disease should give up competitive sports, but the majority has no demonstrable cardiac abnormality. Subjecting these patients to intense exercise and other testing sometimes fails to elicit the faints, but many have varying degrees of hypotension when subjected to prolonged head-up tilt, again suggesting that the cause of fainting is essentially neurocardiogenic (see above). Implanted cardiac pacemakers are not curative in these vasodepressor faints, as the main deficiency is in vascular resistance. Unless the results of tilt-table testing are unequivocal and reproducible, it is best to consider the more serious causes of exercise-induced syncope and to treat the patient appropriately.
The carotid sinus is normally sensitive to stretch and gives rise to sensory impulses carried via the nerve of Hering, a tributary of the glossopharyngeal nerve, to the medulla. Massage of one of the carotid sinuses or of both alternately, particularly in elderly persons, causes (1) a reflex cardiac slowing (sinus bradycardia, sinus arrest, or even atrioventricular block)—the vagal type of response, or (2) a fall of arterial pressure without cardiac slowing—the vasodepressor type of response. Another ("central") type of carotid sinus syncope was in the past ascribed to cerebral arteriolar constriction, but such an entity has never been validated.
Faintness or syncope because of carotid sinus sensitivity reportedly has been initiated by turning of the head to one side while wearing a tight collar or even by shaving over the region of the sinus. However, the absence of a history of such an association does not exclude the diagnosis. The attack nearly always occurs when the patient is upright, usually standing. The onset is sudden, often with falling. Small convulsive movements occur quite frequently in both the vagal and vasodepressor types of carotid sinus syncope. The period of unconsciousness in carotid sinus syncope seldom lasts longer than 30 s, and the sensorium is immediately clear when consciousness is regained. The majority of the reported cases have been in men.
In some circumstances, it is important to avoid compression of the carotid artery as an evocative test, particularly if a carotid bruit is heard over either carotid vessel. Moreover, carotid sinus compression for syncope testing should be conducted in controlled circumstances.
A number of other types of purely reflexive cardiac slowing can be traced to direct irritation of the vagus nerves (from esophageal diverticula, mediastinal tumors, gallbladder stones, carotid sinus disease, bronchoscopy, and needling of body cavities). Here, the reflex bradycardia is more often of sinoatrial than atrioventricular type. Weiss and Ferris called such faints vagovagal.
Through a similar mechanism, tumors or lymph node enlargements at the base of the skull or in the neck that impinge on the carotid artery, as well as postradiation fibrosis, are capable of causing dramatic syncopal attacks, sometimes preceded by unilateral head or neck pain. Often the episodes are unpredictable, but some patients find that turning the head stimulates an attack. The mechanism in one of our patients with cervical adenopathy was primarily a vasodepressor response; patients with prominent bradycardia have generally had tumors that directly surrounded or infiltrated the glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves (Frank et al; see also MacDonald et al). If the tumor can be safely removed from the carotid region, the syncope often abates; in many cases, however, intracranial section of the ninth and upper rootlets of the tenth nerves on the side of the mass is necessary.
Syncope in Association with Glossopharyngeal Neuralgia
Glossopharyngeal neuralgia typically begins in the sixth decade with paroxysms of pain localized to the base of the tongue, pharynx or larynx, tonsillar area, or an ear (see discussion in Chaps. 10 and 47). In only a small proportion of cases (estimated at 2 percent) are the paroxysms of pain complicated by syncope. Always the sequence is pain, then bradycardia, and, finally, syncope. Presumably the pain gives rise to a massive volley of afferent impulses along the ninth cranial nerve, activating the medullary vasomotor centers via collateral fibers from the nucleus of the tractus solitarius. An increase in parasympathetic (vagal) activity slows the heart. Wallin and colleagues demonstrated that, in addition to bradycardia, there is an element of hypotension caused by inhibition of peripheral sympathetic activity. Here, the effects of the bradycardia exceed those of the vasodepressor hypotension, sometimes to the point of asystole, reflecting the opposite relationship from that seen in most other types of syncope.
The medical treatment of this type of syncope parallels that of trigeminal neuralgia (which is associated in approximately 10 percent of cases, usually on the same side). Antiepileptic drugs and baclofen are helpful in reducing both the pain and syncope in some patients. Intracranial vascular decompression procedures involving small branches of the basilar artery that impinge on the ninth nerve are said to be useful, but such patients have not been extensively studied. Conventional surgical treatment, which consists of sectioning the ninth cranial nerve and upper rootlets of the tenth, has proved to be effective in intractable cases.
The same mechanism is probably operative in so-called deglutitional syncope, in which consciousness is lost during or immediately after a forceful swallow. The administration of anticholinergic drugs (propantheline
15 mg tid) has abolished these attacks (Levin and Posner).
This infrequent condition is usually seen in men, sometimes in young adults but more often in the elderly, who arise from bed at night to urinate. The syncope occurs at the end of micturition or soon thereafter, and the loss of consciousness is abrupt, with rapid and complete recovery. Several factors are probably operative. A full bladder causes reflex vasoconstriction; as the bladder empties, this gives way to vasodilatation, which, combined with an element of postural hypotension, might be sufficient to cause fainting in some individuals. Vagally mediated bradycardia and, in some cases, a mild Valsalva effect may also be factors, and alcohol ingestion, hunger, fatigue, and upper respiratory infection are common predisposing factors. Moreover, the use of alpha-adrenergic blockers for bladder outlet obstruction in men may contribute to the situation. In some instances, especially in the elderly, the nocturnal faint has caused serious head injury.
Tussive and Valsalva Syncope
Syncope as a result of a severe paroxysm of coughing was first described by Charcot in 1876. Affected patients are usually heavyset males who smoke and have chronic bronchitis. Occasionally, the problem occurs in children, particularly following paroxysmal coughing spells of pertussis and laryngitis. After sustained hard coughing, the patient suddenly becomes weak and may lose consciousness momentarily. This is mainly attributable to the greatly elevated intrathoracic pressure, which interferes with venous return to the heart. Increased cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pressure and diminished Pco2, with resultant cerebral vasoconstriction, are possibly contributing factors.
Powerful efforts to exhale against a closed glottis (as occurs in tussive syncope) are referred to as the Valsalva maneuver. The unconsciousness that results from breathholding spells in infants is probably based on this mechanism as well; the so-called pallid attacks in infants probably represent reflex vasodepression. Also, the loss of consciousness that occurs during competitive weight lifting ("weight lifters' blackout") is mainly the effect of a Valsalva maneuver, added to which are the effects of vascular dilatation produced by squatting and hyperventilation. Lesser degrees of this phenomenon (faintness and light-headedness) often follow other kinds of strenuous activity, such as unrestrained laughing, straining at stool, heavy lifting, underwater diving, or effortful trumpet playing. Rarely, a brief faint may occur in each of these circumstances.
Syncope may occur occasionally in the course of prostatic or rectal examination, but there is only pallor and bradycardia unless the patient stands immediately (prostatic syncope). A Valsalva effect and reflex vagal stimulation appear to be contributing factors. Postprandial hypotension may occasionally lead to syncope in elderly persons, in whom impaired baroreflex function cannot compensate for pooling of blood in splanchnic vessels.
Sympathetic Nervous System Failure
This type of syncope is the result of orthostatic loss of blood pressure. It affects persons whose adrenergic innervation to the blood vessels is defective or, of course, those who are hypovolemic. The patient with autonomic failure, on assuming an upright position, shows a steady decline in blood pressure that begins almost immediately and, if not checked, declines to a level at which the cerebral circulation cannot be supported. This rapid effect and the slow decline in pressure are quite different from the situation in neurocardiogenic syncope, in which there is a delayed but then rapid onset of hypotension.
These conditions are easily understood if one keeps in mind that, on assuming the erect posture, the pooling of blood in the lower parts of the body is normally prevented by (1) reflex arteriolar and arterial constriction, through alpha- and beta-adrenergic effector mechanisms; (2) reflex acceleration of the heart by means of aortic and carotid reflexes, as described earlier; and (3) muscular activity, which improves venous return. Lipsitz has pointed out that aging is associated with a progressive impairment of these compensatory mechanisms, thus rendering the older person especially vulnerable to syncope. However, even in some younger persons, after the blood pressure has fallen slightly and stabilized at a lower level, the compensatory reflexes may also fail suddenly, with a precipitant drop in blood pressure.
With few exceptions (see Chap. 26), peripheral autonomic failure includes an element of vagal dysfunction that precludes the development of a compensatory tachycardia because vagal tone has already been maximally reduced, and also contrary to what happens in vasodepressor syncope, there tend to be no autonomic responses such as pallor, sweating, nausea, or release of norepinephrine.
Postural syncope occurs under a wide variety of clinical conditions: (1) in otherwise normal individuals who, in certain circumstances, experience an excess centrally mediated sympathetic discharge, as described earlier under vasodepressor syncope, or the simple faint; (2) as part of a chronic, probably degenerative central nervous system syndrome known as idiopathic orthostatic hypotension or primary autonomic insufficiency and with a variety of central nervous system degenerations of the basal ganglia that have autonomic failure as a parallel pathology (multiple system atrophy, Parkinson disease, Lewy-body disease); (3) after a period of prolonged illness with recumbency, especially in elderly individuals with poor muscle tone; (4) in association with diseases of the peripheral nerves that involve autonomic nerve fibers—diabetes, tabes dorsalis, amyloidosis, Guillain-Barré syndrome, a primary idiopathic autonomic -neuropathy, pandysautonomia, and several other polyneuropathies, all of which interrupt vasomotor reflexes; (5) in patients receiving L-dopa, dopamine agonists, antihypertensive agents, and certain sedative and antidepressant drugs; (6) in spinal cord transection above the T6 level, particularly in the acute stage; (7) in patients with hypovolemia, (8) in pheochromocytoma, in which repeated exposure to catecholamines leads to desensitization of alpha receptors on resistance blood vessels.
The diagnosis of orthostatic hypotension from autonomic failure is established by measuring the blood pressure in the supine and then in the standing position and noting a substantial drop accompanied by symptoms of dizziness or syncope. It should be emphasized that the bedside testing of orthostatic blood pressure is best performed by having the patient stand quickly and taking readings immediately and again at 1 min and at 3 min, rather than using the lying-sitting-standing sequence.
Orthostatic hypotension involves the failure to maintain blood pressure in the upright posture. The maintenance of blood pressure during various levels of activity and with postural changes depends on pressure-sensitive receptors (baroreceptors) in the aortic arch and carotid sinus and mechanoreceptors in the walls of the heart. These receptors, which are the sensory nerve endings of the glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves, send afferent impulses to the vasomotor centers in the medulla, more specifically the NTS. Axons from the NTS project to the reticular formation of the ventrolateral medulla, which in turn, sends fibers to the intermediolateral cell column of the spinal cord, thereby controlling vasomotor tone in skeletal muscles, skin, and the splanchnic bed. A diminution of sensory impulses from baroreceptors increases the flow of excitatory signals, which raise the blood pressure and cardiac output, thus restoring cerebral perfusion. This subject is discussed further in relation to the regulation of blood pressure in Chap. 26.
Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome
As described by Low and colleagues, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) consists of intolerance of the standing position accompanied by tachycardia up to 120 beats per minute or more, but without orthostatic hypotension. Dyspnea, fatigue, and tremulousness and a complaint of "dizziness" accompany the assumption of an upright posture, and the same constellation of symptoms may be brought out by upright tilting. There is a frequent association with longer term fatigue and with exercise intolerance. The situation is comparable to orthostatic intolerance in the chronic fatigue and postviral syndromes, with which POTS shares many features. An impairment of cerebral autoregulation has been hypothesized; others consider the condition to be a limited form of dysautonomia. The component of the syndrome that simulates anxiety makes it difficult in some cases to differentiate the anticipation of symptoms from a genuine form of autonomic dysfunction.
Goldstein and associates compared a cohort of POTS patients with a group that experienced recurrent postural near-syncope and found that in the former group there was increased myocardial epinephrine release from intact cardiac sympathetic nerves. The basis for this is not known, although the researchers did exclude the possibility of defects in the cardiac norepinephrine transporter membrane and in norepinephrine synthesis.
Primary Autonomic Insufficiency (Idiopathic Orthostatic Hypotension)
This presents in two forms. In one, there is a selective degeneration of neurons in the sympathetic ganglia with denervation of smooth muscle vasculature and adrenal glands. The pathology has not been fully delineated, but lesions in other parts of the nervous system are not evident. In the second type, there is a degeneration of preganglionic neurons in the lateral columns of gray matter in the spinal cord, leaving postganglionic neurons isolated from spinal control. The latter lesion is often associated with degeneration of other systems of neurons in the CNS, particularly the basal ganglia but also the cerebellum. These processes are subsumed under the term multiple system atrophy, as discussed in Chap. 39. Parkinson disease and Lewy-body dementia may be associated with the same type of central loss of sympathetic neurons, but orthostatic hypotension and a variety of other features of autonomic insufficiency are early, more pronounced, and progressive in multiple system atrophy than in the other diseases named. Most of the dopaminergic drugs used in the treatment of Parkinson disease can exaggerate the hypotension. There are cases in which neuronal degeneration is limited to the sympathetic neurons of the intermediolateral cell columns—the Shy-Drager syndrome. All of these forms of degenerative disease have their onset in adult life, and the associated hypotension and syncope are usually part of a more widespread autonomic dysfunction that includes other features such as a fixed cardiac rate, vocal cord paralysis, a loss of sweating in the lower parts of the body, redness of the digits, atonicity of the bladder, constipation, and impotence.
Syncope of Cardiac Origin
This is caused by a sudden reduction in cardiac output, usually because of an arrhythmia. Normally, a heart rate as low as 35 to 40 beats per min or as high as 150 beats per min is well tolerated, especially if the patient is recumbent. Changes in heart rate beyond these extremes impair cardiac output and may lead to syncope. Upright posture, anemia, and coronary, myocardial, and valvular disease all render the individual more susceptible to these alterations in heart rate and rhythm. Detailed discussions of the various valvular and myocardial abnormalities and arrhythmias that may compromise cardiac output and lead to syncope are to be found in the articles by Lipsitz, and by Kapoor and colleagues.
Cardiac syncope occurs most frequently in patients with complete atrioventricular block and a heart rate of 40 beats or less per minute (Stokes-Adams attacks, or Adams-Stokes-Morgagni syndrome). The block may be persistent or intermittent; it is often preceded by fascicular or second-degree heart block. Ventricular arrest of 4 to 8 s, if the patient is upright, is enough to cause syncope; if the patient is supine, the asystole must last 12 to 15 s. After asystole of 12 s, according to Engel, the patient turns pale and becomes momentarily weak or may lose consciousness without warning; this may occur regardless of the position of the body. If the duration of cerebral ischemia exceeds 15 to 20 s, there are a few clonic jerks. With still longer asystole, the clonic jerks merge with tonic spasms and stertorous respirations and the ashen-gray pallor gives way to cyanosis, incontinence, fixed pupils, and bilateral Babinski signs. As heart action resumes, the face and neck become flushed. The report of this sequence of signs by a dependable observer helps to distinguish syncope from epilepsy. In cases of even more prolonged asystole (4 to 5 min), or if the patient is trapped in an upright or seated position for briefer periods, there may be cerebral injury caused by a combination of hypoxia and ischemia. Coma may persist or may be replaced by confusion and other neurologic signs. Focal ischemic changes, often irreversible, may then be traced to the fields of occluded atherosclerotic cerebral arteries or the border zones between the areas of supply of major arteries. Cardiac faints of the Stokes-Adams type may recur several times a day. The heart block is usually intermittent at first, and between attacks the electrocardiogram (ECG) may show only evidence of heart disease. A continuous ECG using a Holter monitor or telemetry is then needed to demonstrate the arrhythmia (see further on).
Less easily recognized are faintness and syncope caused by dysfunction of the sinus node, and manifested by marked sinus bradycardia, sinoatrial block, or sinus arrest ("sick sinus syndrome"). The nodal block results in prolonged atrial asystole. Supraventricular tachycardia or atrial fibrillation may occur, alternating with sinus bradycardia (bradycardia–tachycardia syndrome).
Tachyarrhythmias alone are less likely to produce syncope. Certainly, intermittent ventricular fibrillation can cause fainting, and supraventricular tachycardias with rapid ventricular responses (usually over 180 beats per minute) cause syncope when sustained, predominantly in patients who are upright at the time. The long QT syndrome is a rare familial condition in which syncope and ventricular arrhythmias are prone to occur. Mutations in at least six different genes encoding cardiac sodium and potassium channels cause this syndrome. Another inherited syndrome with right bundle branch block and ST-segment elevation in the right precordial leads is known to cause syncope and even sudden death (Brugada syndrome). Some patients with mitral valve prolapse seem disposed to syncope and presyncope and an inordinate number are also said to have panic attacks but these associations, like others with mitral valve prolapse, have never been adequately settled.
Aortic stenosis or subaortic stenosis from cardiomyopathy often sets the stage for exertional syncope, because cardiac output cannot keep pace with the demands of exercise. Primary pulmonary hypertension and obstruction of right ventricular outflow (pulmonic valvular or infundibular stenosis) or intracardiac tumors may also be associated with exertional syncope. Syncope may also be a manifestation of large pulmonary embolism. Vagal overactivity may be a factor contributing to the syncope in these conditions as well as in the syncope that may accompany acute aortic outflow obstruction. Tetralogy of Fallot is the congenital cardiac malformation that most often leads to syncope. Other cardiac causes are listed in the classification given at the opening of this chapter.
Syncope Associated with Cerebrovascular Disease
It is now widely appreciated that syncope is not a manifestation of conventional cerebrovascular disease (see further on for discussion and the problem of "drop attacks" that do not have loss of consciousness as a feature). Specifically, syncope does not occur as a manifestation of TIAs that are confined to the territory of the internal carotid arteries and it is rare, if ever, that pure syncopal attacks occur with vertebrobasilar ischemia (see further on). Cases of syncope that do occur are usually associated with multiple occlusions of the large arteries in the thorax or neck. The main examples are found in patients with the aortic-arch syndrome (Takayasu disease) in which the brachiocephalic, common carotid, and vertebral arteries have become narrowed. Physical activity may then critically reduce blood flow to the upper part of the brainstem, causing abrupt loss of consciousness. Stenosis or occlusion of vertebral arteries and the "subclavian steal syndrome" are other examples of cerebrovascular diseases that may cause syncope under the special circumstance of overuse of an arm (see Chap. 34). Fainting also occurs occasionally in patients with congenital anomalies of the upper cervical spine (Klippel-Feil syndrome) or cervical spondylosis, in which the vertebral circulation is compromised. Head turning may then cause vertigo, nausea and vomiting, visual scotomas and, finally, unconsciousness.
Cerebral Hemorrhage and Syncope
The onset of a subarachnoid hemorrhage may be signaled by a syncopal episode, often with transient apnea. Because the bleeding is arterial, there is a momentary cessation of cerebral circulation as the levels of intracranial pressure and blood pressure approach one another. Unless there has been vomiting, a complaint of headache immediately preceding the syncope, or the discovery of severe hypertension or stiff neck when the patient awakens, the diagnosis may not be suspected until a CT scan or lumbar puncture is performed.
An associated problem, with which we have had numerous unsatisfactory encounters, is posed by the patient who falls suddenly forward, striking the head without apparent cause, has headache, and is found to have bifrontal hematomas and subarachnoid blood on CT. These cases highlight the difficulty of distinguishing a primary aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage from an accidental fall or syncope with secondary frontal brain contusions; in almost every case, we have felt obliged to perform some form of cerebral angiography to exclude an anterior communicating artery aneurysm, but we have rarely found one.
Hysterical fainting is rather frequent and usually occurs under dramatic circumstances (Chap. 51). The evident lack of change in pulse, blood pressure, or color of the skin or any outward display of anxiety distinguishes it from the vasodepressor faint. Irregular jerking movements and generalized spasms without loss of consciousness or change in the EEG are typical features (Linzer et al, 1992). The diagnosis is based on these negative findings in a person who exhibits the general personality and behavioral characteristics of hysteria. Several interesting instances of mass faintness and syncope of hysterical type have been described—for example, in school marching bands (R.J. Levine).
Finally, after careful evaluation of patients with syncope and the exclusion of the many forms of the condition described earlier, there remains a significant proportion (one-third to one-half, according to Kapoor and 40 percent in the earlier-noted Framingham Heart Study) in which a cause for the syncope cannot be ascertained. The question of whether a single positive tilt-table test signifies that a prior episode of syncope was neurocardiogenic is not resolved; this obviously has a bearing on the proportion of cases that remain without a diagnosis. If the episodes are repetitive and erratically spaced, a cardiac arrhythmia, intraventricular conduction defect, or seizure should be sought by use of prolonged cardiac rhythm monitoring and conduction studies as well as long-term EEG recordings.