Reflex Anoxic Seizures (Syncope in the Young)

Syncope (pronounced sin-co-pee) is a medical term for a ‘blackout’ or a ‘common faint’ that is caused by a sudden lack of blood supply to the brain. This is very common, and occurs in roughly half of all individuals during their lives. There are many causes of syncope; the most common is vasovagal syncope, also known as neurocardiogenic syncope or reflex syncope.

With some children who suffer from a syncope condition, any unexpected stimulus, such as pain, shock or fright, causes the heart and breathing to stop; the eyes to roll up into the head; the complexion to become white, often blue around the mouth and under the eyes; the jaw to clench and the body to stiffen; and sometimes the arms and legs to jerk.

After what seems like hours, but is probably less than 30 seconds, the body relaxes and the heart starts beating (sometimes very slowly at first). The sufferer is unconscious. One or two minutes later the person may regain consciousness but can appear to be unconscious for over an hour. Upon recovery the person may be very emotional and then fall into a deep sleep for two to three hours. He or she looks extremely pale with dark circles under the eyes. Episodes may occur several times per day/week/month, they also appear to come in batches.

Because of the symptoms, syncope is often unfortunately misdiagnosed as temper tantrums, cyanotic breath-holding (prolonged expiratory apnea), or epilepsy. Therefore, one of the aims of STARS is to bring about both professional and public awareness of syncope conditions.

Living with syncope:

"I just wanted to wrap her up in a blanket and sit and play jigsaws all day, knowing that she was unlikely to have an attack if she didn't move" - (Parent).

Such a response to caring for a child with a syncope condition is natural; however parents need to balance the understandable instinct to protect their child from harm against the long-term problems caused by this attitude.  Excluding children from everyday activities and risks can stunt their normal emotional and psychological development.  Discipline and limit-setting are particularly difficult for families of these children, but they remain essential for the child's healthy development.

What to do in brief:

  • Make sure the individual is lying flat in a safe environment ensuring nothing is blocking their airways.
  • Talk reassuringly (it is known that the individual can sometimes hear but is unable to answer) and comfort upon recovery.
  • Although it should not be necessary to call a doctor, if the person has had a particularly nasty bump it may be wise to seek medical advice.

Download Reflex Anoxic Seizures information sheet