Think of the nervous system like a boombox up on your shoulder, 80’s style, playing sweet jams at all times. When the body is healthy, balanced, and running smoothly, the music playing from your system’s radio station are your favorite hits at the perfect volume, and your drop-in harmonies are totally on point.
When the nervous system is out of sync, those beats flowing from your station are tragic- like the song you hate most, on the loudest setting, playing over and over again. You can’t change the station, no matter what lengths you go to!
When you have a chronic neurological condition like Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome for example, it’s as though someone traded out your cool retro stereo system for an old broken down radio. You can play records on it sometimes, and it’s AMAZING to listen to any music again when you’re not in a flare or a relapse, but even then, all the records have scratches on them, so the music is constantly skipping and warped. The stereo’s wiring gets so bad over time that the record player doesn’t work anymore, and your radio only receives static.
A chronically malfunctioning nervous system is like listening to a broken radio stuck on static at full volume constantly.
When the “music” or the nervous system’s wiring is flowing properly from the brain throughout the body, pain receptors react to appropriate painful stimuli, telling us when there is a problem, and the pain subsides when the problem is resolved. When we have “faulty wiring” we may experience hypersensitivity to touch, sound, light or even smells so intense that it can cause a severely painful reaction. Think of raw wires on the end of electronics sparking and flaming just to the slightest touch.
The malfunctioning nervous system might react to normal stimulus with severe increased pain, increased stress may cause a seizure, or in others severe tremors and body spasms may occur. For some with POTS, (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), a loud noise or changing positions can cause the body to completely check out, going into fight or flight mode, and beginning to pass out, or passing out completely.
Going back to the stereo analogy, imagine being invited to a party where the DJ had a broken stereo system, playing static on blast or his stereo catching fire in front of everyone. That’s exactly what it’s like to live with a chronic neurological disease…well, sort of.
Meditation, spirituality, organized religion, trying to improve sleep, and other stress reducing efforts are ways we try to turn down the knob on the stereo. Medications, alternative therapies, eating well, surrounding ourselves with positive support are all ways we can continue turning the knob down little by little. The static kicks out on full blast each day, and we use our tools to adjust or manage the incoming noise levels. We may not have the ability to turn the station away from the blaring static and back to music, but we can attempt to turn the volume down so it isn’t blasting constantly every day.
Invasive and surgical approaches to treating neurological diseases are like kicking the side of your stereo to try to get it to work again. Jolting it hard enough may coax the system to finally play music once again, or you might kick it so hard that you completely break your stereo. For many, surgery and invasive treatments are worth a risk of causing additional problems for the possibility of returning to good health and functioning.
That’s my super-scientific explanation of the nervous system, and how it’s exactly like a boom box. So…. this analogy might not end up in a medical school text book, but if it helped anyone better understand an aspect of neurological disease, or put a smile on your face, then virtual high fives all around!
This time last year, I published my first and only post detailing life with POTS and my recovery process, My Toothbrush, My Trophy. One hour after hitting the publish button: BOOM, I was back in the hospital for more POTS shenanigans. It felt like some kind of blog jinx! October is POTS Awareness month, and last year my body threw a parade in honor of it.
For me, the thing about POTS is that I didn’t know there was an illness I couldn’t fight my way through. With chronic pain, I had forced my body into submission for so many years- all of my adult life in fact. Whether I needed to utilize walking aids, medications, treatments, or therapies, my crippling pain hadn’t kept me from working, going to school, or being there for my husband and family. So, when my autonomic nervous system kicked it (and it really crapped out on me), I was (and still am) shocked that my willpower has not been enough to overcome.
Last October, the ER doctors thought I was having a heart attack because my chest pains were so intense, like electric jolts piercing my heart. I had experienced chest pains, palpitations, and a racing heart (tachycardia) regularly for years with the onset of POTS, however nothing as intense as the pain that began that morning. The ER had never heard of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome or Dysautonomia before (go figure). They didn’t know what my other conditions were either (of course) but I wasn’t as concerned about those at the time. We explained how once upright, my blood pressure drops and heart races, and my autonomic nervous system shuts down. “Oh, almost everyone has that,” the ER doctor said under his breath, chuckling. “Well doctor, everyone doesn’t almost pass out every time they try to sit or stand up,” I whispered through my head pain, angry that he would assume I am confined to lie flat in a bed for years shrouded with earplugs, a headset, and an eye mask- all over a little dizziness upon standing. (Sure, everyone has that). Keep in mind, this is tucked into a tiny dimmed closet-size room in the ER, as my hypersensitivity to light and sound exacerbates my ongoing migraine disorder too much to be around noise. I lucked out with a sweet nurse who knew what RSD was, and she was the only reason I was given special accommodations. They did multiple tests at the hospital, then through the week, I had several rounds of tests at my Cardiologist’s office. You know, the usual fun…
Verdict? They couldn’t find any reason for my heart to experience the additional pain. That was excellent news. POTS is a nervous system condition which effects the way the heart behaves; it isn’t a cardiac condition effecting the way the body behaves. No heart condition- score!
Conclusion: Since they couldn’t find any cause for the pain and onset of increased symptoms, the next 5 months thereafter were out of the doctor’s hands. (Thanks doc!) My fatigue and brain fog were unwavering. Just trying to move my fingers across the keyboard, holding my phone to text, or forming complete thoughts enough to compile a short blog post became so trying…so overwhelming…so frustrating… my short-lived recovery progress had taken a step in the wrong direction. For the first 2 years after the POTS began, I was in stasis mode. Pancake body, syrup brain. I was so ill and no one knew how to help me. After the spinal procedures in 2011 which threw my body into this tangle of illness, I was basically a lump of pain and un-moving frustrated flesh. Having finally made my first bit of progress last year, working so hard to use the restroom on my own and do some of my own personal hygiene from bed, falling backward again was not in my recovery plan! By last Christmas, I became depressed that my body was no longer moving forward and I was still stuck in the same bed going on 4 years after all of the doctors, hospitals, medications and hard work. (If you follow my blog, my posts reflected my disposition.)
Many with autonomic nervous system dysfunction (dysautonomia) carry on normally, dealing with bouts of dizziness or feeling lightheaded periodically. About a quarter of those with POTS are too disabled to work a job. And a small percentage have symptoms which are so severe, they are confined to a bed and may be hospitalized regularly. I fall into the last category, though I haven’t been hospitalized for a whole year- take that chronic illness! (Let’s not count the times I’ve ignored my doctor’s recommendations to go to the ER). A very large number of those with POTS are teen girls. Awareness and treatment options are lacking for the estimated 70 million individuals living with Dysautonomia worldwide. [Dysautonomia International] Conditions like EDS, Fibromyalgia, CRPS/RSD, heart attack, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME/SEID, Chiari Malformation, stroke, Intracranial Hypertension, Traumatic Brain Injury, Spinal Cord Injury and Parkinson’s can cause Dysautonomia and POTS. To find out if you or a loved one have POTS, see a cardiologist for a “tilt table test” and cardiac monitoring.
Symptomatically, POTS is compared to Congestive Heart Failure, COPD, and massive blood loss. I’ve learned that everyone with Dysautonomia experiences it a little differently, but the most prominent symptoms for me have been low blood pressure, fatigue, confusion, trouble concentrating (brain fog), extreme hypersensitivity to sound and light, brain fog, head pain, trouble breathing, syncope/pre-syncope (fainting or almost fainting), vertigo, brain fog, muscle shaking, weakness, trouble digesting and absorbing food (gastroparesis), bladder dysfunction, chest pain, heart palpitations, brain fog, weak pulse laying down, heart racing when upright, orthostatic intolerance, brain fog, and temperature change intolerance…did I remember brain fog?
It took 2 years for me to get properly diagnosed with POTS and Dysautonomia because pain management doctors and primary care doctors don’t know what it is, what the symptoms are, or how to treat it. Just yesterday, my pain management doctor tried to argue that I developed it from “laying around too much” when the immediate onset was actually damage to my spinal cord. For individuals with POTS, the opposite is true. Pushing yourself to do more than your body allows can send your blood pressure plummeting for weeks or months putting you into an almost comatose state, can cause fevers, flu-like symptoms, severe fatigue, wide-spread physical pain, swelling or “blood pooling”, and a long list of intensified symptoms (see all Dysautonomia symptoms here). Last October, for instance, I believe my trip to the ER and subsequent 5 month puddle-of-me was the result of pushing myself to climb a flight of stairs.
Thankfully, this past spring, my body let up enough to allow me back on my journey toward recovery. (Que happy music.) I’m currently doing home physical therapy from bed with a knowledgeable cardiac rehab therapist, I have new goals for my life, and when I am faced with my body’s set-backs, I’ll try not to allow my frustrations to defeat me.