LOS ANGELES - Alicia Brown Phillips was curling her little sister’s hair for church one morning when she experienced what she called one of the scariest moments of her life. Her little sister Gracie experienced seizure-like symptoms as a result of getting her hair curled, which led to diagnosis of a condition called hair-grooming syncope.
Phillips posted about the experience on Facebook in the hopes that parents might be able to avoid similar situations by knowing what signs and symptoms to watch for.
At first, Phillips thought that her sister was getting sick to her stomach, “I was maybe about five minutes in and she starts to gag a little and looks kind of pale. I asked her if she was going to get sick and she shook her head yes.”
After ushering her own daughters out of the bathroom, Phillips returned to her sister and held her hair back as she leaned over the toilet. But when Gracie turned to look back at her sister, Phillips noticed she had extremely pale skin and blue lips and realized the issue was much more serious than she originally thought. She said Gracie then began to pass out.
“Her pupils got really big and I caught her,” Phillips said. She then began screaming to her family for help. “Gracie has a blank stare and look on her face and is completely unresponsive and limp for about a minute.”
To Phillips, Gracie’s symptoms were reminiscent of epilepsy. “Her hands were also shaking. Very seizure like. She then comes back to and says she feels much better. She says she remembers hearing us talk but couldn’t see us,” Phillips wrote.
Both sisters were shaken by the experience — Phillips says she was in tears and her little sister was confused.
Their parents rushed to meet them before going to a children’s hospital, where Gracie had an EKG and a head scan that revealed no serious underlying causes.
Doctors informed the family that Gracie had suffered from something called hair-grooming syncope. It affects children ages 5-13, but it is so rare that this particular hospital only sees a handful of cases each year.
Syncope is the medical term for fainting or passing out, and is defined by the American Heart Association as a temporary loss of consciousness usually related to insufficient blood flow to the brain.
In a very small number of children, brushing, curling, braiding, cutting, or drying hair can cause nerve stimulation on the scalp that results in seizure-like symptoms.
“We were told if she ever starts to feel nauseous or light headed while getting her hair brushed to sit down and take a break,” Phillips said before adding this warning, “I am putting this out there for others to see. If a kid ever complains of their belly hurting or feeling light headed while they are getting their hair done, make sure they take a seat and keep a close eye on them!”
A research team from the pediatrics department at the University of Nevada School of Medicine performed a database review in 2009 that revealed 1,525 children had been seen for syncope in the school’s program, 111 of whom had a hair-grooming trigger.
Of the 111 patients, 78 percent of them were girls, and this research study was the first data set to include a series of boys with the condition. Electrocardiograms and echocardiograms were performed as part of the syncope evaluation, and no significant abnormalities were found in any of the patients which would indicate that their syncope was caused by something other than grooming.
Researchers found that boys’ hair-grooming syncope was more frequently caused by hair cutting, whereas girls’ syncope was more frequently caused by brushing and combing.
"The hair-grooming trigger appears to stimulate a benign form of neurocardiogenic reflex syncope," the team’s published research article concluded.
Neurocardiogenic reflex syncope, also known as vasovagal syncope, occurs when one’s body overreacts to certain stimulus, causing fainting. This is the phenomena at work when someone who gets queasy at the sight of blood catches a glimpse of a wound and passes out. The vasovagal syncope trigger causes both heart rate and blood pressure to drop suddenly, reducing blood flow to the brain and temporarily causing a loss of consciousness.
Sometimes it isn’t possible to completely avoid a fainting episode, but there are a few steps you can take to remain as safe as possible.
According to the Mayo Clinic, if you begin to feel light-headed or like you might faint in any way, lie down and lift your legs above your head so that gravity can support the flow of blood to your brain. If lying down isn’t possible, the next best tactic is to sit down and put your head between your knees until the feeling has completely passed.
The Mayo Clinic also warns that once you have fainted, it’s important not to stand up too quickly. During the first 15-30 minutes following an episode, the risk of fainting a second time is elevated.