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Passing Anatomy without Passing Out

By Malaika Haider

If someone had asked me what I was most worried about before starting medical school; fainting in anatomy sessions wouldn’t have even made the top ten of that list.

I’m not a squeamish person. My hand is always first in the air when a volunteer is needed and I would happily engage in dissection for the entire session if I could.

Fainting isn’t always about fear, in fact that’s just one of many triggers that lead to a temporary loss of consciousness. It’s very common amongst medical students from first years in an anatomy lab for the first time, to junior doctors scrubbing up in theatre. However, it is something that you need to learn to mitigate. Given that I’ve now fainted four times over the course of my first two years, I think I’m the perfect person to give you some advice.

Tip 1: Avoid Overheating

One of the most common causes of fainting is actually vasodilation which is stimulated by overheating. In my experience, anatomy labs are often poorly ventilated. In order to maintain the condition of the cadavers, rooms need to be kept at a specific humidity and temperature setting. If you’re timetabled an anatomy session first thing Monday morning, it’s likely that the ventilation has been off for a few days.

To avoid overheating, wear loose and breathable clothing. You’ll most likely be wearing a lab coat during your session so thermals aren’t the way to go. If you’ve got long hair, tie it up away from your neck. Not only will it stop you from overheating but it will be easier to maneuver yourself when dissecting a body.

Tip 2: Stay hydrated and eat something

To avoid contamination, it’s likely that you won’t be allowed to consume any beverages in your anatomy lab. Standing up for extended periods of time without hydrating yourself will only tire you out quicker. Drinking fluids will increase your blood volume which will protect you against fainting. Make sure you drink water before your session and after leaving your session. We usually don’t notice that we are dehydrated before it’s too late.

A quick tip? If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.

Until you get used to the smell of formaldehyde, I wouldn’t recommend going into an anatomy lab on a full stomach. Even so, a drop in your blood sugar can lead to a fainting episode. I usually try and eat something sugary before I start a session. It’s enough to keep me sated with a small burst of energy. As a matter of fact, some people claim that the smell of formaldehyde actually makes them hungry. You should adapt to what suits you.

Tip 3: Move around

Another consequence of standing up for a long period of time is fainting. When your body is relaxed and immobile, your blood pressure tends to fall. If you’re standing around a cadaver for the better part of an hour, you’re often pretty stationary.

Every now and then, rock backwards and forwards on the balls of your feet. It’s an easy and quick method to raise your blood pressure again. In fact, any movement that tightens your leg muscles is protective against fainting.

Tip 4: Ask for help

There’s no need to suffer in silence! If you need to leave the room because you feel like fainting, inform your tutor or supervisor. Fainting is very common in theatre and in anatomy sessions, so staff will be prepared for this situation. It’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. It’s good practice for future years, especially in surgery where a disturbance like fainting will have more clinical consequences. By informing someone, you’re demonstrating that you are a responsible medical student who is aware of their limits.

I hope these tips even faintly help! Happy dissecting! 😊 if you have any further questions about this topic, please head over to the Scrubbed Up Forum.

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Some really great tips- Hope you don’t pass out again!

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