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Bush Fainting Spell Doesn't Spell Ill Health

Medical experts say blackout, triggered by pretzel, no cause for alarm

MONDAY, Jan. 14 (HealthDayNews) - The blackout that briefly felled President Bush yesterday was a garden-variety fainting spell and nothing to be overly alarmed about, doctors said.

Such spells "really don't say much about the person's underlying health. They could happen to anyone," said Dr. Michael Witting, a specialist in emergency medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore who has studied fainting.

Bush said he was feeling "great" this morning after suffering a swoon the night before that was evidently induced by an ill-eaten pretzel.

"My mother always said, 'When you're eating pretzels, chew before you swallow,'" Bush told reporters before boarding a helicopter on the White House lawn this morning. "Listen to your mother."

Bush seems to have had a bout of vasovagal, or possibly vagovagal, syncope, the medical terms for fainting spells that involve a specific nerve reflex, experts say. The cause was a chunk of pretzel that tripped the vagus nerve -- which signals the heart to slow down -- until he lost consciousness for a few seconds.

Witting said it's difficult to know whether Bush in fact had a vasovagal episode sparked by the fear that he was choking, or a vagovagal response to direct nerve stimulation from the pretzel.

In either event, Bush fell from the couch, and his face hit the floor. The tumble left a raw red mark beneath his left eye. He sustained the injury while watching a football playoff game, between the Miami Dolphins and the Baltimore Ravens, with his two dogs in the White House residence.

"I hit the deck, and woke up, and there was Barney and Spot showing a lot of concern," the president, referring to his pets, recounted to reporters. "I didn't realize what happened until I looked in the mirror, and my glasses cut my side of my face.

"I feel great," the president added. "I had good blood pressure last night, good blood pressure this morning."

Bush's physician, Dr. Richard Tubb, said the president recovered quickly and appeared normal in a thorough physical exam shortly after the incident, according to the Associated Press. The swoon was Bush's first.

Bush, 55, exercises regularly and has a naturally low heartbeat, which might have exacerbated his risk of syncope, Tubb told the Associated Press. He had also complained of the beginnings of a head cold earlier in the weekend, which may also have played a role, the doctor said.

Vasovagal syncope (pronounced SIN-co-pea) is a common condition that can be sparked by several things, including coughing, rough swallowing, or even anxiety about giving blood. Although the causes of the episodes are typically benign, fainting spells can be triggered by more serious conditions, including heart disease and abnormal heart rhythms.

Dr. Richard Sadovsky, a family practice physician who has studied the syndrome, said it's the brain's way of telling the body it needs more blood.

"Unless somebody has underlying neurologic disease or cardiovascular disease, there is not anything worse that can happen" as a direct result of the response, Sadovsky said.

What To Do

To learn more about vasovagal syncope, try MedicineNet.

To learn more about syncope and sports, try this site about sports medicine.

SOURCES: Interview with Richard Sadovsky, M.D., M.S., associate professor, family practice, State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Michael D. Witting, M.D., research director, assistant professor, department of surgery, division of emergency medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore; Jan. 14, 2002, remarks by President George Bush; White House file photo
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