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What is hair-grooming syncope? Condition can cause kids to faint while having hair done

For some children, having their hair done can cause a fainting episode. While unusual, it's generally harmless.
/ Source: TODAY

As Alicia Brown Phillips curled her sister’s Gracie’s hair, the girl started gagging as the color drained from her face. While Brown Phillips rushed Gracie to the bathroom, her lips turned blue and she started fainting. Her face went completely blank.

A few minutes later, she appeared to regain her composure and said she felt "much better." Still very concerned, her family took her to a local children’s hospital where they learned Gracie experienced something called hair-grooming syncope.

“I had never heard of this in my life,” Brown Phillips shared in a Facebook post, which has been shared more than 160,000 times. “Turns out brushing, curling, braiding, or drying hair can cause nerve simulation on the scalp and cause children to have seizure-like symptoms.”

Brown Phillips did not respond to a TODAY request for comment.

Hair-grooming syncope causes children, mostly girls, to faint when having their hair brushed or styled. While pediatricians see a handful of patients annually who experience it, it doesn’t happen frequently enough that people would know someone who has experienced it.

“It is all so fascinating,” Dr. Alison Tothy, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine, told TODAY. “We think it is either from pain, pulling on the scalp or scalp stimulation, or fear and the body feels like it is going to pass out and they do.”

Doctors say that hair-grooming syncope, another word for fainting, occurs because a nerve in the scalp communicates with the vasovagal nerve, which regulates blood pressure and heart rate. Tugging on the hair sparks a sensation in that nerve to stimulate the vasovagal nerve, causing the blood pressure and heart rate to slow, which can lead to a loss of consciousness.

“For some reason, your sensory system sends off this funny signal and your body reacts,” said Dr. Dan Fain, chief of pediatric in-patient neurology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It is an episode of passing out or loss of consciousness or partial consciousness.”

While doctors generally don’t worry about children fainting, they do recommend that parents take their children to a doctor for a check-up following an episode to rule out underlying causes, such as heart problems, for the fainting. In most cases, a trip to the emergency room isn’t needed. Most children outgrow hair-grooming syncope by their mid-teens. Some children can experience repeated episodes of hair-grooming syncope because they worry it might happen again, and that worry feeds into them fainting again.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Dr. Deborah Sokol, a pediatric neurologist at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, told TODAY. “If it happens again and again, it’s a circuit.”

Even though hair-grooming syncope occurs mostly in children, it is similar to people who faint when they have their blood taken or in stressful situations. But, parents can prevent hair-grooming syncope.

“Maybe have a parent present or make sure children are seated sitting in front of a mirror, instead of standing. Or combing their hair after breakfast or a glass of water,” Fain explained.

Fainting is often associated with being poorly hydrated so waiting to fix a child’s hair until after they have had breakfast and something to drink can lessen the chance of it occurring.

“Keep the tank fueled and hydrated,” Sokol said.

Parents should seek emergency care if a child faints and doesn’t wake for several minutes, if they are turning blue or if they stop breathing. But otherwise a fainting episode without an underlying problems is harmless but stressful.

“This is a really scary experience," Tothy said.