Your autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating your “automatic” nervous system responses. This system is responsible for your blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, temperature regulation and a lot more. For some people, the autonomic nervous system malfunctions. These people have dysautonomia, an umbrella term used for autonomic dysfunction. One of the more prevalent forms of dysautonomia is postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
POTS cannot be cured, but for most, it can be managed. If you have POTS, or you know someone who has POTS, it’s important to understand the impact POTS has on your overall health.
Understanding Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome
One of the most noticeable symptoms of dysautonomia in POTS patients is an uncomfortable rise in heart rate, which can cause dizziness and fainting. When the heart rate gets too fast, there is not enough time between beats for the chambers of the heart to refill before the next beat. This decreases blood flow to the brain. The lack of properly regulated blood flow can cause a lot of seemingly unrelated symptoms.
- A heart rate that rises 30 beats or more when you rise from sitting to standing
- Headaches and fatigue
- Chest pain and palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Digestive disturbances
- Bladder dysfunction
- Difficulty with temperature regulation
- Blood pressure problems, either too high or too low
- Difficulty with concentration or memory
POTS Can Co-Exist with Other Chronic Health Conditions
Many potentially confusing symptoms coincide with a POTS diagnosis. Symptoms will vary from person to person. POTS can occur on its own. Often those diagnosed with POTS have other medical conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome or an autoimmune disorder such as Sjogren’s syndrome, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
POTS Can be Difficult to Diagnose
POTS is often misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, not enough doctors are experienced diagnosing this condition, but that is improving. The rapid heart-rate, sweating, nausea and dizziness are often assumed to be related to anxiety, depression or panic attacks. It can take several years and many doctors for a POTS patient to be properly diagnosed. Even when you have a diagnosis, finding knowledgeable doctors can be challenging.
Normal Daily Activities Can be Affected
POTS symptoms can range from mild to debilitating. If you have POTS, you may be limited on how much activity you can tolerate in a day. Even simple tasks like walking or bathing can cause exhaustion. Since POTS is an invisible illness, people may not understand that symptoms can vary from day to day.
You may find that you have a hard time getting yourself out of bed one day, and will be fine and out shopping the next. POTS can be unpredictable. This unpredictability can take its toll on people who have POTS and cause isolation and depression, especially when friends and family do not understand the unpredictability.
Exercise Can Be Challenging
Physical fitness affects your overall health, but exercising when you have POTS is not without its challenges. When you have POTS, you may also have symptoms of exercise intolerance. You may get dizzy and nauseated during or after exercise. You could also find yourself becoming more symptomatic when you get too warm. Exercise is essential, but it may take a bit of trial and error to find an exercise that you can handle without becoming overly symptomatic.
You Could Experience Digestive Disorders
Your autonomic nervous system also regulates your digestive processes. For some with POTS, the digestive system can slow down resulting in painful digestion, nausea and bloating. Many POTS patients find that they experience more symptoms after a large meal. You may need to change your eating habits to accommodate smaller, more frequent meals to keep blood flow from pooling in your abdomen. Some POTSies find a lower carbohydrate diet is helpful. You may also need to avoid caffeine and alcohol.
There is no cure for POTS, but it can be managed. Some can manage their symptoms with lifestyle adaptations that keep their blood flow and blood pressure stable. Standard treatment typically includes wearing compression garments, increasing fluids and increasing salt to help retain fluids and increase blood volume. When the standard treatment is not successful, doctors can prescribe medications to help regulate your heart rate and blood pressure. While POTS is not life-threatening, it is life-altering. There are many ways that POTS can impact your overall health.