I said these words to 27 different doctors before cardiologist Dr. David Cannom diagnosed me with something called dysautonomia.
“Dys”autonomia is “dys”function of something called the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The autonomic nervous system regulates everything that’s “automatic” for you, like blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and food digestion. That’s the easiest way I use to explain it, and here it is in all its sympathetic and parasympathetic functions:
See the left bottom, 4th word up: “vasoconstriction?” That means that a blood vessel goes from being big to being little. The vessel constricts in size, squeezing on itself. Blood vessels vasoconstrictor to give blood supply to another area, or when an extremity is cold.
The opposite of vasoconstriction is “vasodilation.” Blood vessels get bigger when blood supply is needed. In general, blood vessels vasodilate to increase blood supply to use big muscles, for blushing, or for carrying or taking away nutrients or waste, respectively. The process of either vasoconstriction or vasodilation is called, “vasoreactivity.” If you eat, vasodilation to the stomach occurs; if you swim, vasodilation to the leg muscles happens.
5 Situations Requiring Vasoreactivity
- Eating. When you eat, vasodilation to the gut occurs, to break down food into tiny molecular parts.
- Swimming. When you jump in a swimming pool, the blood vessels in the stomach vasoconstrict to halt food digestion. That’s because the leg muscles need energy, so they vasodilate to keep you floating.
- Blushing. When your face turns pink from blushing, that’s because of vasodilation to the skin. You can also feel hot, for more complicated reasons, and that’s an idea of what a ‘hot flash’ during menopause can feel like. It’s rather uncomfortable.
- Standing. Are you understanding? Here’s the crucial part: When you stand, the leg veins squeeze or vasocontrict to divert blood up to your brain, so you don’t pass out or faint when you start walking. You don’t even have to think about it, because your autonomic nervous system is just peachy.
- Dysautonomia. When a person with dysautonomia stands, the leg veins do not squeeze or vasoconstrict. Therefore, blood pools in the feet and it’s like a sinking ship as the brain starts to pass out, seeing everything gray at first, in a “gray-out.” Soon, the gray-out leads to fainting, or syncope. Patients with dysautonomia live with pre-syncope or syncope (pre-fainting or fainting) as a lifestyle. That’s why they always lay in bed – to stay sideways.
There are many different types of dysautonomias; the simplest one is orthostatic hypotension, denoting people who get dizzy whenever they stand. A more extreme type is Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS, which requires the heart rate and blood pressure to reach more extreme measures when standing. Here’s a fact about people with POTS, or POTSIES, that I can vouch as being true:
As with many invisible illnesses, dysautonomia and POTS are not “rare.” They are frequently misdiagnosed, undiagnosed, or completely unrecognized.
To increase awareness, dysautonomia is associated with the color blue. I find that many organizations and images depict an outstretched hand.
I’m not sure why this is so, but I can tell you that when you pass out, it’s a sickening and sinking feeling, so perhaps an automatic body response is to reach out for help. That’s why The Rebel Patient has outstretched hands.
Literally, we extend our hands out and reach for help.
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