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Five unusual medical tales that literally proved to be a laughing matter

As I begin a week-long hiatus from this blog, I thought I’d leave you with five tales from the medical literature that may strike your funny bone.

But not too hard, I hope. I wouldn’t want you to faint. For each of these case studies involves laugh syncope — a very rare (and apparently benign) phenomenon in which a seemingly healthy person faints while laughing hilariously. (Syncope means “fainting” in medical lingo.)

Who knew?

I didn’t — at least, not until Mind Hacks described a case a couple of days ago. Of course, I then immediately headed for PubMed to dig up more. The results of my literature search are the five odd tales below.

Actually, I was most struck (and bemused) by the dry, clinical and often ironically understated language used by the doctors who wrote up these journal reports. I’m not sure if they realized just how funny their accounts sound.

(And as you read these, keep in mind that no one got seriously injured. Nor were the people involved found to have any kind of serious illness or condition.)

Tale #1
“An unusual set of circumstances brought a patient to our attention. A 62-year-old male [experienced] three witnessed syncopal episodes that were provoked while watching the television show Seinfeld, specifically, the antics of the George Costanza character played by Jason Alexander. While laughing hysterically, the patient suffered sudden syncope with spontaneous recovery of consciousness within a minute. During one event, he fell face first into his evening meal and was rescued by his wife. The patient and his family were adamant that syncope has not resulted from any other television sitcoms or other stimuli.”

Tale #2

“A 56-year-old [man] … informed [his] physician of an incident that occurred one evening as he entertained his colleagues in a fine restaurant. While waiting for the meals to be served, a guest had told a very amusing joke and the patient began to laugh heartily, “Ha, ha, ha, ha …,” in decrescendo until he was out of breath. To everyone’s surprise, he then fell forward resting his head on the table and remained unresponsive for a few seconds before regaining consciousness … After the episode he denied … feeling sick and proceeded to eat when his entrée was served. The remainder of the evening was without incident.”

Tale #3
“[A] 29-year-old previously healthy man … witnessed a coworker trip and hit his head on the sink at approximately 10 a.m. He subsequently went into a severe fit of uncontrollable laughter that involved leaning forward and crouching down, at which point he began to feel lightheaded and dizzy. He collapsed for 3 seconds with definite loss of consciousness and nonspecific arm twitching. He regained consciousness within those 3 seconds and was oriented properly and prepared to resume his work duties.”

Tale #4
“At 4 PM on a March day, a 32-year-old, previously healthy barber was standing and cutting a client’s hair. The client related a funny story, upon which the barber broke out into a very strong, sustained, loud, and unrestrained laughing fit during which, according to observers, he “blacked out” and fell to the floor. … He regained consciousness within a few seconds, was completely oriented, had no apparent neurological deficit, and immediately resumed his work. … The temperature at the time had been mild. The timing of his most recent meal was not recorded. The patient did not reveal the content of the story.”

Tale #5

“A 60-year-old … patient was on a business trip with a colleague and admitted to increased alcohol intake over the past few days. … [H]e was walking with his colleague who related a particularly amusing anecdote. A prolonged, vigorous laughing fit resulted in sudden loss of consciousness and he was observed to collapse forwards on to the ground. This occurred outside on a mild winter day. Loss of consciousness lasted 2-3 min only and he recovered fully within 5-10 min and walked back to his hotel…. Our patient was fortunate in that his colleague was relating his amusing anecdote as they were crossing a busy street and did not complete the tale until they were safely on to the footpath. An earlier punchline and it might not have been a laughing matter.”

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