Hair curling triggers seizure-like symptoms in girl with rare condition, Tenn. family says

First the girl started gagging and turned pale. Then her lips turned blue. Her pupils grew larger and she began to pass out.

Alicia Phillips of Clinton, Tennessee, had been curling her 10-year-old sister Gracie Brown’s hair for church when Gracie started to suffer those scary and “very seizure like” symptoms, Phillips wrote in a July 7 Facebook post that has been shared more than 200,000 times.

Gracie became “completely unresponsive and limp for about a minute,” Phillips said. “Her hands were also shaking ... She then comes back to and says she feels much better. She says she remembers hearing us talk but couldn’t see us.”

Phillips called it “one of the scariest moments of my life.”

A visit to a children’s hospital that day revealed that Gracie’s symptoms were bizarre but not entirely unheard-of hallmarks of a rare condition: hair-grooming syncope. The family was surprised by the doctors’ diagnosis.

“And at this point, I’m like ‘What?’ I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Phillips said, according to WBIR. “I kind of thought he was joking at first.”

Lisa Brown, Gracie’s mother, told “Good Morning America” that she was similarly skeptical — but Brown said the doctor assured her the condition is real and that “he sees one-to-five cases a year, but there (are) probably a lot more — not everyone goes to the emergency room [for it].”

Dr. Kurt Brandt, a pediatrician, told WBIR that “syncope is basically passing out, and hair grooming is known to be a precipitant of that … It may be the pulling of the hair, possibly pain, possibly stimulation of the scalp. Your blood pressure goes down and you pass out.”

Doctors told the family the condition can impact kids between 5 and 13, according to Phillips.

A 2009 study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics found that among a group of 1,525 patients suffering from syncope, 111 cases were triggered by hair-grooming — 78 percent of them girls. The study “found characteristic difference between boys and girls with boys experiencing syncope more during hair cutting whereas girls experienced syncope more during hair combing and brushing.”

Phillips said she shared the story on Facebook so other families would know what to look for.

“Turns out brushing, curling, braiding, or drying can cause nerve stimulation on the scalp and cause some children to have seizure like symptoms,” Phillips wrote on Facebook, adding that she’d never heard of the condition before. “We were told if she ever starts to feel nauseous or light headed while getting her hair brushed to sit down and take a break.”

But what exactly causes the fainting?

Doctors say hair tugging can prompt a scalp nerve to send a signal to the nerve that controls a person’s heart rate and blood pressure — and that can slow them down in a way that makes a person lose consciousness, TODAY reports.

Dr. Dan Fain, chief of pediatric in-patient neurology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Michigan, explained that “for some reason, your sensory system sends off this funny signal and your body reacts,” according to TODAY.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.