Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome

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Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome
Other names: Postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS)
SpecialtyCardiology, neurology
SymptomsWith standing: lightheadedness, trouble thinking, blurry vision, weakness[1]
Usual onsetAround age 20[1]
Duration> 6 months[2]
Risk factorsFamily history[1]
Diagnostic methodAn increase in heart rate by 30 beats/min with standing[1]
Differential diagnosisDehydration, heart problems, adrenal insufficiency, Parkinson disease[4]
TreatmentAvoiding factors that bring on symptoms, increasing dietary salt and water, compression stockings, exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, medications[1]
MedicationBeta blockers, pyridostigmine, midodrine, and fludrocortisone.[1]
Prognosis~90% improve with treatment[5]
Frequency~ 500,000 (US)[4]

Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is a condition in which a change from lying to standing causes an abnormally large increase in heart rate.[1] This occurs with symptoms that may include lightheadedness, trouble thinking, blurred vision or weakness.[1] Other commonly associated conditions include Ehlers–Danlos syndrome, mast cell activation syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, chronic headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.[1]

The causes of POTS are varied.[3] Often, it begins after a viral infection, surgery or pregnancy.[5] Risk factors include a family history of the condition.[1] Diagnosis in adults is based on an increase in heart rate of more than 30 beats per minute within ten minutes of standing up which is accompanied by symptoms.[1] Low blood pressure with standing, however, does not occur.[1] Other conditions which can cause similar symptoms, such as dehydration, heart problems, adrenal insufficiency and Parkinson disease, must not be present.[4]

Treatment may include avoiding factors that bring on symptoms, increasing dietary salt and water, compression stockings, exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications.[1][6] Medications used may include beta blockers, pyridostigmine, midodrine or fludrocortisone.[1] More than 50% of people whose condition was triggered by a viral infection get better within five years.[5] About 90% improve with treatment.[5] It is estimated that 500,000 people are affected in the United States.[4] The average age of onset is 20 years old, and it occurs about 5 times more often in females.[1]

Signs and symptoms

In adults the primary symptom is an increase in heart rate of more than 30 beats per minute within ten minutes of standing up.[1][7] The resulting heart rate is typically more than 120 beats per minute.[1] For people aged between 12 and 19, the minimum increase for diagnosis is 40 beats per minute.[8] This symptom is known as orthostatic (upright) tachycardia (fast heart rate). It occurs without any coinciding drop in blood pressure, as that would indicate orthostatic hypotension.[7] Certain medications to treat POTS may cause orthostatic hypotension. It is accompanied by other features of orthostatic intolerance—symptoms which develop in an upright position and are relieved by reclining.[7] These orthostatic symptoms include palpitations, light-headedness, chest discomfort, shortness of breath,[7] nausea, weakness or "heaviness" in the lower legs, blurred vision and cognitive difficulties.[1] Symptoms may be exacerbated with prolonged sitting, prolonged standing, alcohol, heat, exercise, or eating a large meal.

In up to one third of people with POTS,[1] fainting occurs in response to postural changes or exercise.[9] Migraine-like headaches are common, sometimes with symptoms worsening in an upright position (orthostatic headache).[9] Some people with POTS develop acrocyanosis, or blotchy, red/blue skin upon standing, especially over the feet (indicative of blood pooling).[9] 48% of people with POTS report chronic fatigue and 32% report sleep disturbances.[1] Others exhibit only the cardinal symptom of orthostatic tachycardia.[9] Additional symptoms are varied, and may include excessive sweating, a lack of sweating, heat intolerance, digestive issues such as bloating, nausea, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea, a flu-like feeling, coat-hanger pain, forgetfulness and brain fog, and presyncope.[10]


The symptoms of POTS can be caused by several distinct pathophysiological mechanisms.[7] These mechanisms are poorly understood,[8] and can overlap, with many people showing features of multiple POTS types.[7] Many people with POTS exhibit low blood volume (hypovolemia), which can decrease the rate of blood flow to the heart.[7] To compensate for this, the heart increases its cardiac output by beating faster,[11] leading to the symptoms of presyncope and reflex tachycardia.[7]

In the 30% to 60% of cases classified as hyperadrenergic POTS, norepinephrine levels are elevated on standing,[1] often due to hypovolemia or partial autonomic neuropathy.[7] A smaller minority of people with POTS have (typically very high) standing norepinephrine levels that are elevated even in the absence of hypovolemia and autonomic neuropathy; this is classified as central hyperadrenergic POTS.[7][12] The high norepinephrine levels contribute to symptoms of tachycardia.[7] Another subtype, neuropathic POTS, is associated with denervation of sympathetic nerves in the lower limbs.[7] In this subtype, it is thought that impaired constriction of the blood vessels causes blood to pool in the veins of the lower limbs.[1] Heart rate increases to compensate for this blood pooling.[13]

In up to 50% of cases, POTS is associated with recent viral illness.[1] It may also be associated with physical deconditioning or chronic fatigue syndrome.[8] During viral illness or prolonged bed rest, the body may become conditioned to orthostatic intolerance and excitability of the central nervous system, resulting in a failure to re-adapt to the normal demands of standing or exercise.[1]

POTS is more common in females than males. It has also been shown to be linked in patients with acute stressors such as pregnancy, recent surgery, or recent trauma. POTS has been also linked to patients with a history of autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, anemia, hyperthyroidism, fibromyalgia, diabetes, amyloidosis, sarcoidosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and cancer. Genetics likely plays a role, with one study finding that 1 in 8 POTS patients reported a history of orthostatic intolerance in their family.[11]


If POTS is caused by another condition, it may be classified as secondary POTS.[5] Chronic diabetes mellitus is one common cause.[5] POTS can also be secondary to gastrointestinal disorders that are associated with low fluid intake due to nausea or fluid loss through diarrhea, leading to hypovolemia.[1] Systemic lupus erythematosus and other autoimmune diseases have also been linked to POTS.

There is a subset of patients who present with both POTS and mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), and it is not yet clear whether MCAS is a secondary cause of POTS or simply comorbid, however treating MCAS for these patients can significantly improve POTS symptoms.[14]

POTS can also co-occur in all types of Ehlers–Danlos syndrome (EDS),[9] a hereditary connective tissue disorder marked by loose hypermobile joints prone to subluxations and dislocations, skin that exhibits moderate or greater laxity, easy bruising, and many other symptoms. A trifecta of POTS, EDS, and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) is becoming increasingly more common, with a genetic marker common among all three conditions.[citation needed] POTS is also often accompanied by vasovagal syncope, with a 25% overlap being reported.[15] There is significant overlap between POTS and chronic fatigue syndrome, with evidence of POTS in 25–50% of CFS cases.[15] Fatigue and reduced exercise tolerance are prominent symptoms of both conditions, and dysautonomia may underlie both conditions.[15]

POTS can sometimes be a paraneoplastic syndrome associated with cancer.[16] Autoantibodies have been found in some cases which occur after a viral infection raising the possibility of some cases being autoimmune in nature.[1][17]


Diagnostic criteria

A POTS diagnosis requires the following characteristics:[18]

  • For patients age 20 or older, increase in heart rate ≥30 bpm within 10 minutes of upright posture (tilt test or standing) from a supine position
    • For patients age 12-19, heart rate increase must be >40 bpm[8]
  • Associated with related symptoms that are worse with upright posture and that improve with recumbence
  • Chronic symptoms that have lasted for >6 months
  • In the absence of other disorders, medications, or functional states that are known to predispose to orthostatic tachycardia

Orthostatic intolerance

An increase in heart rate upon moving to an upright posture is known as orthostatic (upright) tachycardia (fast heart rate). It occurs without any coinciding drop in blood pressure, as that would indicate orthostatic hypotension.[7] Certain medications to treat POTS may cause orthostatic hypotension. It is accompanied by other features of orthostatic intolerance—symptoms which develop in an upright position and are relieved by reclining.[7] These orthostatic symptoms include palpitations, light-headedness, chest discomfort, shortness of breath,[7] nausea, weakness or "heaviness" in the lower legs, blurred vision and cognitive difficulties.[1]

Differential diagnoses

A variety of autonomic tests are employed to exclude autonomic disorders that could underlie symptoms, while endocrine testing is used to exclude hyperthyroidism and rarer endocrine conditions.[9] Electrocardiography is normally performed on all patients to exclude other possible causes of tachycardia.[1][9] In cases where a particular associated condition or complicating factor are suspected, other non-autonomic tests may be used: echocardiography to exclude mitral valve prolapse, and thermal threshold tests for small-fiber neuropathy.[9]

Testing the cardiovascular response to prolonged head-up tilting, exercise, eating, and heat stress may help determine the best strategy for managing symptoms.[9] POTS has also been divided into several types (see § Causes), which may benefit from distinct treatments.[19] People with neuropathic POTS show a loss of sweating in the feet during sweat tests, as well as impaired norepinephrine release in the leg, but not arm.[1][19] This is believed to reflect peripheral sympathetic denervation in the lower limbs.[1] People with hyperadrenergic POTS show a marked increase of blood pressure and norepinephrine levels when standing, and are more likely to suffer from prominent palpitations, anxiety, and tachycardia.[19]


POTS treatment involves using multiple methods in combination to counteract cardiovascular dysfunction, address symptoms, and simultaneously address any associated disorders.[9] For most patients, water intake should be increased, especially after waking, in order to expand blood volume (reducing hypovolemia).[9] Eight to ten cups of water daily are recommended.[14] Increasing salt intake, by adding salt to food, taking salt tablets, or drinking sports drinks and other electrolyte solutions is an effective way to raise blood pressure by helping the body retain water. Different physicians recommend different amounts of sodium to their patients.[20] Combining these techniques with gradual physical training enhances their effect.[9] In some cases, when increasing oral fluids and salt intake is not enough, intravenous saline or the drug desmopressin is used to help increase fluid retention.[9][12]

Large meals worsen symptoms for some people. These people may benefit from eating small meals frequently throughout the day instead.[9] Alcohol and food high in carbohydrates can also exacerbate symptoms of orthostatic hypotension.[8] Excessive consumption of caffeine beverages should be avoided, because they can promote urine production (leading to fluid loss) and consequently hypovolemia.[9] Exposure to extreme heat may also aggravate symptoms.[14]

Prolonged physical inactivity can worsen the symptoms of POTS.[9] Techniques that increase a person's capacity for exercise, such as endurance training or graded exercise therapy, can relieve symptoms for some patients.[9] Aerobic exercise performed for 20 minutes a day, three times a week, is sometimes recommended for patients who can tolerate it.[20] Exercise may have the immediate effect of worsening tachycardia, especially after a meal or on a hot day.[9] In these cases, it may be easier to exercise in a semi-reclined position, such as riding a recumbent bicycle, rowing or swimming.[9]

When changing to an upright posture, finishing a meal or concluding exercise, a sustained hand grip can briefly raise the blood pressure, possibly reducing symptoms.[9] Compression garments can also be of benefit by constricting blood pressures with external body pressure.[9]


If nonpharmacological methods are ineffective, medication may be necessary.[9] Medications used may include beta blockers, pyridostigmine, midodrine, or fludrocortisone.[1] As of 2013, no medication has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat POTS, but a variety are used off-label.[14] Their efficacy has not yet been examined in long-term randomized controlled trials.[14]

Fludrocortisone may be used to enhance sodium retention and blood volume which may be beneficial not only by augmenting sympathetically-mediated vasoconstriction but also because a large subset of POTS patients appear to have low absolute blood volume.[21]

While people with POTS typically have normal or even elevated arterial blood pressure, the neuropathic form of POTS is presumed to constitute a selective sympathetic venous denervation.[21] In these patients the selective Alpha-1 adrenergic receptor agonist midodrine may increase venous return, enhance stroke volume and improve symptoms.[21] Midodrine should only be taken during the daylight hours as it may promote supine hypertension.[21]

Ivabradine can successfully restrain heart rate in POTS without affecting blood pressure and approximately 60% of people with POTS treated in an open-label trial of ivabradine experienced symptom improvement.[21]

Pyridostigmine has been reported to restrain heart rate and improve chronic symptoms in about half of people.[14]

The selective alpha 1 agonist phenylephrine has been used successfully to enhance venous return and stroke volume in some people with POTS.[22] However, this medication may be hampered by poor oral bioavailability.[23]


POTS has a favorable prognosis when managed appropriately.[9] Symptoms improve within five years of diagnosis for many patients, and 60% return to their original level of functioning.[9] About 90% of people with POTS respond to a combination of pharmacological and physical treatments.[5] Those who develop POTS in their early to mid teens during a period of rapid growth will most likely see complete symptom resolution in two to five years.[24] Outcomes are more guarded for adults newly diagnosed with POTS.[11] Some people do not recover, and a few even worsen with time.[5] The hyperadrenergic type of POTS typically requires continuous therapy.[5] If POTS is caused by another condition, outcomes depend on the prognosis of the underlying disorder.[5]


The prevalence of POTS is unknown.[9] One study estimated a minimal rate of 170 POTS cases per 100,000 individuals, but the true prevalence is likely higher due to underdiagnosis.[9] Another study estimated that there at least 500,000 cases in the United States.[4] POTS is more common in women, with a female-to-male ratio of 5:1.[19] Most people with POTS are aged between 20 and 40, with an average onset of 30.[19] Diagnoses of POTS beyond age 40 are rare, perhaps because symptoms improve with age.[9]


In 1871, physician Jacob Mendes Da Costa described a condition that resembled the modern concept of POTS. He named it irritable heart syndrome.[9] Cardiologist Thomas Lewis expanded on the description, coining the term soldier's heart because it was often found among military personnel.[9] The condition came to be known as Da Costa syndrome,[9] which is now recognized as several distinct disorders, including POTS.

Postural tachycardia syndrome was coined in 1982 in a description of a patient who had postural tachycardia, but not orthostatic hypotension.[9] Ronald Schondorf and Phillip A. Low of the Mayo Clinic first used the name postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome in 1993.[9][25]

Notable cases

British politician The Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford revealed in March 2015 that she had been diagnosed with Ehlers–Danlos syndrome in 2013 and that she had later been diagnosed with POTS.[26] She was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Science by Prime Minister Theresa May in 2019 and given a life peerage which enabled her to take a seat in Parliament. As a junior minister, it is her responsibility to answer questions in parliament on the subjects of Health and departmental business. When answering these questions, it is customary for ministers to sit when listening to the question and then to rise to give an answer from the despatch box, thus standing up and sitting down numerous times in quick succession throughout a series of questions. On 17th June 2019, she fainted during one of these questioning sessions after standing up from a sitting position four times in the space of twelve minutes,[27] and it was suggested that her POTS was a factor in her fainting. Asked about the incident, she stated: "I was frustrated and embarrassed my body gave up on me at work...But I am grateful it gives me a chance to shine a light on a condition many others are also living with."[28]


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