What Is Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS)?

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Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is a medical condition characterized by lightheadedness and palpitations in response to standing. With POTS, the heart rate increases dramatically with body position.

Most people with POTS are women between the ages of 13 and 50. Some people have a family history of POTS, but most don't; some people report POTS began after an illness or stressor, others report that it began gradually.

The diagnosis is based on an assessment of your blood pressure and pulse (heart rate). The effects vary in severity from relatively mild to incapacitating, and medications and lifestyle strategies can help reduce the symptoms.

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POTS Symptoms

POTS is a disorder that can affect young people who are otherwise healthy. The condition can begin suddenly. It typically occurs between the ages of 15 and 50, and women are more likely to develop it than men.

With POTS, you can experience a range of symptoms that occur within a few minutes of standing up from a lying or seated position. The symptoms may occur often, even on a daily basis.

The most common symptoms of POTS include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Palpitations (a sense that you have a rapid or irregular heart rate)
  • Legs becoming a red-purple color
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Weakness
  • Tremulousness
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling like you will almost pass out
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Trouble concentrating

You can experience any combination of these symptoms with POTS.

If you have POTS, you may also experience recurrent episodes of fainting, typically without any trigger besides standing up.

Sometimes, people who have POTS are not able to tolerate sports or exercise and may feel light-headed and dizzy in response to mild or moderate physical activity. This may be described as exercise intolerance.

Associated Effects

POTS can be associated with other dysautonomia syndromes, like neurocardiogenic syncope.

People with POTS are often co-diagnosed with other conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, and other autoimmune and/or bowel conditions.

Causes

Normally, standing up causes blood to rush from the torso to the legs. This sudden change means that less blood is immediately available for the heart to pump.

To compensate for this, the autonomic nervous system tells the blood vessels to constrict to push more blood to the heart and keep the blood pressure and heart rate normal. Most people do not experience much change in blood pressure or pulse when standing at all.

Sometimes, though, the body isn't able to do this correctly. If the blood pressure drops from standing and causes symptoms like lightheadness, it is called orthostatic hypotension. If the blood pressure stays normal but the heart rate gets faster, it is called POTS.

The exact factors that cause POTS are probably different in each person, but are related to changes in the autonomic nervous system, adrenal hormone levels, total blood volume (which can drop with dehydration), and poor exercise tolerance.

Autonomic Nervous System

Blood pressure and heart rate are controlled by the autonomic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that manages internal bodily functions such as digestion, respiration, and heart rate. It is normal for your blood pressure to drop a little and for your heart rate to speed up a bit when you stand. With POTS, these changes are more substantial than usual.

POTS is considered a type of dysautonomia, which is diminished regulation of the autonomic nervous system. There are several other syndromes that are also thought to be related to dysautonomia, such as fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

It isn't clear why POTS or any of the other types of dysautonomia develop, and there seems to be a familial predisposition to these conditions.

Sometimes the first episode of POTS occurs after a health event such as:

  • Acute infectious illness, like as a bad case of influenza
  • An episode of trauma or concussion
  • Major surgery
  • Pregnancy

Diagnosis

Your diagnostic evaluation will include a medical history, a physical examination, and diagnostic tests. Your healthcare provider may take your blood pressure and pulse at least twice—once while you are lying down and once while you are standing.

Normally, standing up increases the heart rate by 10 beats per minute or less. With POTS, the heart rate is expected to increase by 30 beats per minute or more while blood pressure remains about the same.

In POTS, the heart rate stays elevated for more than a few seconds upon standing (often 10 minutes or more), symptoms occur frequently, and the condition lasts for more than a few days.

Positional pulse changes are not the only diagnostic consideration for POTS as you can experience this degree of change with other conditions.

Diagnostic Tests

A tilt-table test may be helpful in making the diagnosis of POTS. During this test, blood pressure and pulse are measured at several time intervals when you are lying down on a table and when the table is moved to an upright position.

Differential Diagnosis

There are many causes of dysautonomia, syncope, and orthostatic hypotension. Throughout your medical evaluation, your healthcare provider may consider other conditions besides POTS, such as dehydration, deconditioning from prolonged bed rest, and diabetic neuropathy.

Medications such as diuretics or blood pressure medication can cause effects similar to those of POTS as well.

Treatment

There are several important approaches used in the management of POTS and you may need a combination of several therapeutic approaches.

Your healthcare provider may suggest that you regularly check your blood pressure and pulse at home so that you can discuss the results when you go in for your medical checkups.

Fluids and Diet

Drinking non-caffeinated fluids can keep you hydrated. You and your healthcare provider can calculate the right amount of fluids that you need each day. Overnight dehydration is common, so it is especially important to drink fluids first thing in the morning (before getting out of bed, if possible).

It is also important that you maintain an adequate amount of sodium. Generally, it is extremely rare for a person to be too low in sodium, but it is a factor to be aware of.

Exercise Therapy

Exercise therapy can help your body learn to adjust to an upright position. Because it can be very difficult to exercise when you have POTS, a formal exercise program under supervision may be needed.

An exercise program for POTS may begin with swimming or using rowing machines, which do not require an upright posture. Generally, after a month or two, walking, running or cycling may be added.

If you have POTS, you will need to continue your exercise program for the long term to keep your symptoms from returning.

Medication

Prescriptions that have been used to manage POTS include midodrine, beta-blockers, pyridostigmine (Mestinon), and fludrocortisone.

Ivabradine, used for a heart condition called sinus tachycardia, has also been used effectively in some people with POTS.

Compression Stockings

Your healthcare provider may prescribe compression stockings to prevent too much blood from flowing into your legs when you stand, potentially helping you avoid orthostatic hypotension.

A Word From Verywell

POTS is a condition that can be very disruptive and frustrating. This condition often affects young people, and while it often resolves over time, treatment is helpful.

You may need some adjustments in your medications as you and your healthcare provider work to find the right drug and dose for you.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD). Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome


  2. Sheldon RS, Grubb BP, Olshansky B, et al. 2015 Heart Rhythm Society expert consensus statement on the diagnosis and treatment of postural tachycardia syndrome, inappropriate sinus tachycardia, and vasovagal syncope. Heart Rhythm. 2015;12(6):e41-e63. doi:10.1016/j.hrthm.2015.03.029

  3. Dysautonomia International. Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome


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