Me vs Gravity: Life with Dysautonomia

         October is also Dysautonomia Awareness Month! Wahoo! Dysautonomia is an umbrella term for several conditions that result from a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Many people know of the ANS from health class as being the system that is in charge of the “fight or flight” response, and you’d be mostly right. Yes, the ANS is in charge of “fight or flight” but more broadly, it is essentially in charge of regulating the automatic functions of your body. There are nine different types of dysautonomia: POTS, OI, AAG, Pandys, NMH, NCS, PAF, FD, and MSA. Learn more about them here. For this post I will only be talking about POTS and my experiences with POTS. I have secondary hyperadenergic POTS (hPOTS).

What is POTS?

As stated above, POTS is a neurological condition in which the ANS does not send the proper signals to the body to regulate blood pressure and heart rate (primarily, POTS affects the whole body).  Normally, when a person stands, gravity pulls blood to the lower extremities. The nervous system senses this and sends a message to the blood vessels to constrict, sending more blood back to the heart and head. With POTS, this message to constrict does not get sent. Therefore, instead of the heart rate increasing by a normal 10 to 15 bpm upon standing, it can increase by more than 30 and can even double (when first diagnosed mine went from 68 bpm lying down to 189 bpm and remained that way for 10+ minutes). By affecting circulation, it also affects cerebral blood flow. Symptoms include orthostatic intolerance (dizziness), chest pain, headaches, GI cramps and dysmotility, inability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time, inability to read due to blurred vision, difficulty with recall, blood pooling, extreme fatigue, nausea, tremulousness, insomnia, loss of consciousness. 

What causes POTS?

While there is some knowledge about comorbid conditions that are commonly seen with POTS and certain types of POTS have associated causes with the start of symptoms, it is unknown what is the true cause. For example, one type of POTS can occur post-concussion and we know that but not everyone who gets a concussion gets POTS. There is currently no cure and treatment is based on symptom management. 

Common Misconceptions

  • POTS is caused by anxiety. POTS symptoms can mimic anxiety/panic disorders patients are often misdiagnosed or POTS is missed entirely because symptoms are deemed to be caused by anxiety. See research here
  • POTS is caused by deconditioning. See research here. Exercise (for those allowed by their doctors) can be a crucial part of a POTS patient’s treatment plan but is not caused by deconditioning and cannot be cured by exercise alone
  • POTS is just getting dizzy sometimes. POTS is a complex neurological condition that effects every patient different though almost all, if not all, have multiple organ systems effected. 

Lingo

  • brain fog: cloudy feeling that hangs around and causes you to do stupid shit like flush the toilet three times, forget if you took your meds or just thought about taking your meds, and being unable to form a coherent sentence

What my POTS is like

***Disclaimer: This will by no means be an extensive list of symptoms or experiences and this is just how POTS effects me. There will also be crossover between EDS, GP, MCAD and possibly LQTS.***

       I was formally diagnosed with POTS in 2015 though I had symptoms beginning in early middle school years. To save my fingers I am just going to talk about my current life with POTS and will probably do a more extensive post later, I just tired and lazy.
       Remember the last time you had the flu and ached everywhere, slept all day and don’t remember half of what happened? Now imagine waking up feeling like that every day (and more! yaaay), this is one of my main struggles with POTS. Several factors contribute the fatigue including medication and adrenaline surges/crashes but on any given day my energy level is equal to or less than a sloth on Ambien. I take naps nearly daily, sometimes multiple times a day just to keep up with my peers. I have trouble filtering out stimuli, recalling things, producing speech, following multistep directions, and reading for comprehension.
        Another big problem I have is blood pooling. POTS alone can cause bad pooling but with the stretchiness of my veins from EDS, it is much worse. I also have Raynaud’s syndrome so my hands and feet are always cold! The picture to the left is an example of blood pooling in my hands (on medication). This is what happens if I stand with one hand raised and one arm relaxed for two minutes. The white hand was raised and therefore has less pooling (gravity does all the work). After about a minute of sitting my legs look like my left hand. Now imagine a 11 hour car ride or a 3 hour lecture. This is why many POTSies wear compression stockings and socks to help our bodies circulate blood or why lying down with our legs up helps. 


       While POTS impacts many things in my life it does not mean I can’t do fun stuff, learn, and enjoy life I just need everything to slow down and take breaks. I have very limited energy and most is spent on school, existing, medical appointments, personal hygiene (showers are EXHAUSTING), and keeping myself alive. I have to worry about getting places without steps, lying down in the middle of the mall to keep myself from passing out, obsessing over hydration and medication schedules to maintain baseline and prevent things from spiraling out of control, and pretend to be a functioning adult.

Thanks for reading and make noise for turquoise (dysautonomia awareness color)! 

Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say! AAC Awareness Month

     Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is any form of communication that supplements or replaces speech. AAC can take many forms, from sign language to facial expressions, to printed communication books to high tech speech generating devices (SGDs AKA “talkers”). Basically, if it isn’t speech it is AAC! High tech does not always mean better and just like study habits and treatment plans, what works for one person might not work well for another, even with the same diagnosis. AAC users are of all ages, genders, races, disabilities, and literacy levels but they all have either no speech, speech that is difficult to understand, or have trouble forming fluent speech.

Remember that last time you lost your voice? I can almost guarantee you that you became frustrated at least once during that time period. Now imagine that you have an itch on the center of your back and you cannot speak. You’re only given this sheet of laminate paper.

You can’t sign, speak, or write. How do you tell me your back itches? Maybe … “I/me/me — help — turn…” then directional words until your communication partner happens upon the place your back itches??

Sounds “no want”? What? Not the word you were thinking of? Oh well… good enough. NO NO NO!

     Everybody should be given access to words (and symbols). Words are powerful and they make us who we are and allow us to connect with others. They surround us from the moment we are born to our very last breaths. Words are more than just basic needs and wants. Words are social, personal, creative and powerful. Nobody should have that kept from them.

Tips for Communicating with a person who uses AAC:

  • Be patient! One of the most frustrating things for me if being asked a question and halfway through your response they say something like, “oh, nevermind” or “don’t worry about it”. Similarly, group conversations can be VERY difficult when it takes you longer to respond. I often form my answer and by time I have finished my response is irrelevant. Don’t be offended if I tend to be quieter in groups, I am listening! I know it is hard to take the time to slow it down but I guaranteed you the AAC user will be very grateful!
  • Don’t limit to yes and no questions. It gets boring really quick. That being said, if an answer is needed quickly, it might be helpful to ask yes or no questions or give a few options to chose from. Ex. “Julie, the house is burning and I need to know, should we use: unicorn power, ninjas or rocks to stop the fire. Unicorn power? (yes/no) Ninjas? (yes/no) Rocks? (yes/no) Something else? (wait for response using AAC).
  • Presume competence. Talk to us at an age appropriate level and normal volume and rate (unless known to have hearing or processing issues). POP QUIZ! (all based on actual experiences)
    •  Billy is 40 years old Giants fan and uses a speech generating device. When talking to Billy you should:
      1. HELLO BILLY BOY! HOW————ARE———YOU?!
      2. Hi Billy, how are you? I saw the Giants won last night!
      3. *turns to Billy’s wife* Hi Betty! How are you? How is Billy doing?
      4. HI. My——-name——–is———S-U-S-A-N. NIIIIIICCEEEE TO MEEET YOU! YOUR CHAIR IS SOOOOOO CUTE!
    • If you answered #2, wahoo! You get it.
  • Advocate with us and for us!

 

Cool AAC Related Stuff:

Above: Video compilation project showing AAC users doing various activities and living their lives!

Above: An example of a SGD and computer controlled with the users eyes. For more information click here.

For a great website for AAC resources (use, teaching, awareness) click here (PrAACtical AAC)!

Examples of popular low and high tech systems:

 

 

Getting Hip with the Lingo

  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): includes all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write (Source: ASHA)
  • Speech-Generating Device: Any piece of technology that turns user inputted text or symbols and turns it into spoken computer generated or synthesized voice. AKA a machine that talks for you.
  • Switch Access: using a switch to control your AAC device (like an automatic door switch). Switches can be activated using touch, light, sound, breath, or even tongue movements!