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Heart Disease Health Center

Heart Problems Prompt Fainting Behind the Wheel

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In some cases, surgery is required, and medication is used for others. In all but one of the patients studied in the lab, patients had no more incidents of fainting while driving, he says.

These episodes seem to be more common among elderly people, but can occur at all ages, Schoenfeld says. There also is no clear pattern of the spells. "I have patients that have had four separate spells in 17 years. I have patients who have one spell a year. I have patients who can go 20 or 30 years without a spell before another spell," he says.

People may hurt or kill themselves or others if these spells occur while they are driving. Some families have been subjected to unnecessary anguish, because they were mistakenly told that the car accident occurred when their loved one attempted suicide. In two cases, the people recovered; they could distinctly remember passing out or having chest pain before they crashed, Schoenfeld says.

All of the patients Schoenfeld treated for these problems, particularly the older ones, were quite happy to be driving again, he adds. "Some of these people are dependent on driving for their livelihood. A lot of the patients are older, and they want to drive just because they have the time and they have the right. I can't tell you how many of my [older] patients have recreational vehicles who are traveling all over the place," he says.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers suggest some car accidents that happen under mysterious circumstances may actually be caused by drivers with undiagnosed heart conditions passing out behind the wheel.
  • The researchers urge people who suspect they have "fainting spells" not to ignore their symptoms, because the conditions can create dangerous situations and often can be treated successfully.
  • In the new study, eight out of 10 participants were found to be suffering from an undiagnosed heart problem. With treatment, all but one patient was able to go back to driving without experiencing fainting again.
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