Vasovagal Syncope During Bowel Movements

Why a Bowel Movement Might Make You Feel Like You Will Faint

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Do you ever experience symptoms of sweating and feeling like you are going to pass out during a bowel movement? Or during a bad attack of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? Feeling so badly throughout your body can certainly be very frightening and may make you wonder if something is more seriously wrong with you. This discussion of your body's own vasovagal response may help to put your fears to rest.

Real Life Examples

The following are all examples of real-life stories about vasovagal symptoms during bowel movements:

"The bad part is that, with the rectal pain, I will begin to have a vagus response: my throat will tighten, I will begin salivating, get hot and sweaty. Then spasms will start in my stomach and I will begin rhythmic heaving with acid reflux. There isn't anything in my stomach, so there is not much to vomit, but on occasions, I will bring up the water or the coffee and bile, I suppose. The spasms are quite violent and when the episode is over, I am completely wasted. Sometimes this sequence happens once, but I have had up to three experiences in a morning. It makes it impossible to leave the house some days!"
"I too have vasovagal response during painful cramping IBS attacks. During extreme attacks I always have tingling, profuse sweating (drenching), light-headedness and get close to passing out. I have never actually passed out however. These symptoms make coping with IBS symptoms a lot more difficult because I am unable to think straight and the pain is beyond belief."
"I have suffered from vasovagal (reflex) since I am a child. It wasn't until I was an adult that it was diagnosed. I do know my triggers and have become more aware of how to avoid passing out. However, in the last few years I also suffer from IBS....I have had three serious occasions where the IBS attack was so severe that I had a vasovagal attack. Each time I was extremely close to passing out.....dizzy, blurred vision, headache, nausea, and a drenching sweat."

What Is the Vagal Response and Vasogal Syncope?

The vagal response is an automatic reflex that happens within your body when your vagas nerve is stimulated. This reflex affects your central and peripheral nervous system, as well as your cardiovascular system and therefore a sudden stimulation of this reflex can set off a variety of symptoms. Vasovagal syncope is the term used to describe the experience of losing consciousness (fainting) due a sudden drop in blood pressure. Vasovagal syncope can happen as part of the vagal response.

When the vagas nerve is stimulated suddenly, it can set off some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness, feeling faint or light-headed
  • Feeling suddenly warm, sweaty, or having your skin feel cold and clammy
  • Blurry vision or tunnel vision (blackness in the periphery of your vision)
  • Feeling nauseous
  • A ringing in your ears
  • Turning pale
  • Temporary loss of consciousness through a fainting spell

Why Does This Happen?

In rare cases, there may be an underlying medical condition, such as a neurological condition, that can cause a person to experience these symptoms. Another possibility is that there is some underlying heart problem. Often, no specific cause can be found.

Because vasovagal symptoms may be related to underlying disease, you must bring any symptoms to the attention of your doctor for proper evaluation.

What To Do If This Happens to You

If your doctor does not find any medical diagnosis to explain your symptoms, you may benefit from following some basic self-care recommendations. For syncope, people are advised to do their best to avoid things that trigger the reflex, such as standing up quickly or standing for too long. Of course, one cannot avoid having bowel movements!

On the most basic level, make sure that you are getting adequate sleep and that you stay hydrated.

While on the toilet, or in between trips, you can cross your legs, keeping the muscles tight, and lower your head toward the floor to help to stabilize your blood pressure.

Since acute emotional stress can be a trigger, it may be of help to work to keep yourself as calm as possible when this is happening. Although such episodes can be scary, you can use calming self-talk to help get yourself through it and reduce any unnecessary panic. Remind yourself that your symptoms will pass. You can find reassurance in the fact that your doctor has checked you out and ruled out any more serious causes of your symptoms. Although there is no direct evidence that utilizing mind/body practices on a regular basis will also help with vasovagal symptoms, it is typically quite beneficial to engage in activities that lower one's overall stress level. 

Sources:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Syncope Information Page." https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Syncope-Information-Page.

Raj S, Sheldon R. "Management of Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia and Vasovagal Syncope" Arrhythmia & Electrophysiology Review 2016;5(2):122-129.

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