Tennessee Woman Calls Attention to Rare Medical Condition Triggered by Styling Children's Hair

"I had never heard of this in my life," said Alicia Brown Phillips of the bizarre medical condition

Alicia Renee Phillips
Photo: Alicia Renee Phillips/ Facebook

A woman in Tennessee is creating awareness about a rare medical condition that some children experience while having their hair styled that can lead to a dizziness and loss of consciousness.

It’s called hair-grooming syncope and according to pediatricians, it affects a handful of young patients (mostly girls) each year. While getting their hair done, the children might feel light-headed or even faint, which could present as though they’re having an epileptic seizure. Tugging on the hair, it turns out, triggers the nerves in one’s scalp to stimulate the body’s vasovagal nerve — which regulates blood pressure and heart rate — causing both to slow.

It is all so fascinating,” Dr. Alison Tothy, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine, told NBC’s Today of the condition. “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.”

That’s exactly what happened to Gracie Brown. Gracie’s sister, Alicia Brown Phillips, wrote on Facebook that she was curling 10-year-old Gracie’s hair before church when the young girl started to gag and began losing color in her face.

Rushing to the bathroom, Phillips took Gracie’s temperature, which was normal. But then Gracie’s lips went blue, her pupils got big, and her hands began shaking in a “seizure like” manner before she went completely limp.

She was unresponsive and not moving,” the mother of three from Clinton, Tennessee, told Good Morning America. “I was screaming for my husband to come into the bathroom, and he was taking her pulse, trying to say her name. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Soon thereafter, Gracie regained consciousness and started speaking, telling Phillips that she felt “much better.”

But Phillips wasn’t taking chances. After calling mom Lisa Brown, the two checked in with Gracie’s pediatrician, who advised they take Gracie into the emergency room at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville.

There, Gracie was given a series of tests including an electrocardiogram (EKG), a head scan, and blood pressure tests — all of which came back normal.

Eventually, doctors gave Gracie’s family the diagnosis.

“I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THIS BEFORE,” Phillips wrote on Facebook. “Turns out brushing, curling, braiding, or drying can cause nerve stimulation on the scalp and cause some children to have seizure like symptoms. … They said they see about 1-5 cases a year.”

Dr. Dan Fain, chief of pediatric in-patient neurology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told Today that parents could help prevent hair-grooming syncope by making sure their children are seated, fed and hydrated before a hair comb.

“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 said.

Santa Monica-based dermatologist Sonia Batra added to GMA that pausing the process might help.

“If you start to feel dizzy, lightheaded or clammy while hair grooming, stop and take a break,” Batra said. “If you can, lie down and elevate your legs with pillows or prop them up until the sensation passes.”

After a child experiences hair-grooming syncope, parents should take their child to a doctor to assure there isn’t an underlying issue, such as heart problems.

Most children outgrow hair-grooming syncope by their mid-teens, doctors told Today, but could experience related episodes out of fear that it’ll happen again.“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Dr. Deborah Sokol, a pediatric neurologist at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, to Today. “If it happens again and again, it’s a circuit.”

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