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MastAttack 107

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 39

46. What does it mean to be a “leaker” or “shocker”?

These are terms patients use to describe the way mast cell disease affects them rather than defined medical terms. A leaker is someone who has a lot of symptoms day to day but has fewer severe attacks or anaphylaxis. A shocker is someone who has fewer day to day symptoms but more frequent severe attacks or anaphylaxis.

Leakers and shockers are not considered to have different subtypes of mast cell disease because symptom presentation varies hugely in all forms of mast cell disease. There are no tests to identify if you are a leaker or shocker. You can start a leaker and become a shocker or vice versa. The terms themselves have no medical meaning. They are just shorthand for patients to describe their experience with their disease.

47. What does “sense of impending doom” mean?

Sense of impending doom is the medical term for a feeling of terrible anxiety or fear, literally a feeling that something awful is about to happen. It is a medical symptom for lots of conditions, including anaphylaxis. The biological basis behind this sensation has been the subject of debate for a long time but there’s really no decisive answer as to the cause

48. Why do I taste metal when I’m having a bad reaction or anaphylaxis?

A metallic taste is also a symptom of many things, including anaphylaxis. It is also debated and an exact cause has never been identified. One of the more prevalent explanations is that it is the taste of epinephrine, which your body releases as an initial defense against anaphylaxis or mast cell degranulation. As far as I know, there is no data to support this.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 38

45. Is mast cell disease autoimmune?

An autoimmune disease is the result of a patient’s immune system specifically targeting a normal, healthy part of their body. How particularly and precisely the immune system identifies part of the body to attack is very important to understanding my answer to this question.

Let’s look at some autoimmune diseases as examples.

Autoimmune thyroiditis (also called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) is a prevalent autoimmune disease that targets the thyroid. The thyroid’s job is to make hormones that tell your body to do other things. These hormones are called thyroid hormones. When you have autoimmune thyroiditis, your immune system makes antibodies that target the thyroid and thyroid hormones. These are called autoantibodies. They target a normal part of body. There is no reason for the body to make these autoantibodies. They do not perform any healthy function for the body. The only function they serve is to attack part of the body.

When you have autoimmune thyroiditis, the immune system makes antibodies to things that are only found in the thyroid or made by the thyroid. (I’m being very general here.) Other autoimmune diseases target parts of the body that are found throughout the body so that the effects of the disease are more widespread. However, those diseases still target specific things.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects many places in the body by precisely attacking things found throughout the body. The cells in your body all have DNA inside of them. This DNA has the genes to make proteins and other things your body needs. If the cell can’t use the DNA inside it correctly, it makes your body sick. This is exactly what happens in lupus. Lupus makes autoantibodies and attacks things inside your cells that your body needs to use the DNA. Because all of the cells in your body need to use their DNA, the things lupus attacks are found all over the body, not just one organ. But even though lupus attacks many organs and places throughout your body, it is still targeted to harm specific pieces of the body.

In autoimmune disease, the body makes specific things for the explicit purpose of damaging specific things.

Now let’s talk about mast cell disease.

Currently, mast cell diseases are not considered to be autoimmune by most – but not all – experts. (I’ll circle back to this.) When a person has mast cell disease, the fundamental issue is that they release tons of mast cell mediators at times when they shouldn’t, causing symptoms and damage to the body. But even though those chemicals can cause all kinds of problems, they are not targeted to attack specific structures. This is where the distinction is from autoimmune diseases. Mast cells release tons of histamine, but that histamine isn’t targeted to find a specific molecule inside of a liver cell. They release prostaglandin D2, but that PGD2 isn’t made for the particular purpose of attacking one particular thing inside of your thyroid.

Instead, the molecules released incorrectly by mast cells affect whatever cells are in its path. This is one of the reasons why there is such variability in symptoms and disease effects for mast cell patients. What parts of the body are affected the most is dependent upon a million things happening in the patient’s body. This is because the chemicals mast cells release are not targeted to any one place. They are just released by the mast cell and they go wherever they can before the body breaks them down.

I mentioned above that most experts did not consider mast cell diseases to be autoimmune, but not all of them. So let’s go back to that. Mastocytosis is not considered autoimmune but anyone as far as I am aware. There is absolutely no evidence that mastocytosis is autoimmune after decades of research. But MCAS is a newer entity and so there is less information on it due to less time spent researching it. There are still a lot of questions around MCAS and some experts think that whether or not it is autoimmune is one of them.

We know that at the very least that there is a connection between MCAS and autoimmune disease. Many MCAS patients have autoimmune disease, often more than one. We think MCAS occurs secondarily to the autoimmune disease in these patients. There’s also the fact that many MCAS patients are positive for ANA (antinuclear antibody), an autoantibody linked to lupus, even though they don’t have a diagnosed autoimmune disease that would cause that to be positive. Some people think that maybe MCAS is the autoimmune disease in that situation and that ANA is a marker indicating that MCAS is autoimmune. I have mentioned elsewhere that while we consider MCAS to usually be a secondary disease, there are some patients for whom we can’t find a primary disease. It is possible that MCAS is a primary condition in those people and that it is autoimmune.

You still need to keep in mind that even if we say that maybe the positive ANA shows that MCAS is autoimmune, there is still no evidence of any kind that indicates that mast cell mediators target a specific part of the body – a defining characteristic of autoimmune disease. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an autoantibody or some other mechanism for targeting precise structures in the body, just that we have no evidence of one existing right now.

Let’s recap: currently, most experts believe that mast cell diseases are not autoimmune because they do not target specific normal, healthy structures in the body. Mastocytosis is roundly agreed to not be autoimmune. There are some experts who feel that at least some cases of MCAS might be autoimmune. They feel this way because of the clear link between MCAS and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the fact that many MCAS patients are positive for an autoimmune marker, ANA, without evidence of an autoimmune disease that would explain that.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 36

43. What is a rebound reaction?

Rebound is a term that gets used a lot in the mast cell community, often incorrectly. Rebound reactions occur when medication taken to suppress symptoms wears off. This phenomenon is easiest to see with the older H1 antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Benadryl is broken down pretty quickly by the body so it wears off in about 4-6 hours. In some situations, it can break down even faster.

When you take diphenhydramine, as soon as it’s in your body, the diphenhydramine looks for the molecules on the outsides of cells called histamine receptors. In order for histamine to affect your body, they have to find one of these histamine receptors and sit on it. If it can’t do that, the histamine is not able to cause symptoms or perform its normal function. The antihistamine finds those receptors and sits on top of it so that the histamine can’t fit in. This translates into fewer symptoms because the histamine is blocked.

How effective antihistamines are at finding those receptors and sitting on them differs from drug to drug. Some do this really quickly but others take a few hours to find the receptors. Some drugs can get knocked off the histamine receptors they sat on. Drugs like this are less effective antihistamines.

Diphenhydramine finds the histamine receptors very quickly and sticks to them very strongly. This is why it is such an effective antihistamine. Because it is such a strong antihistamine, when your body breaks it down, your symptoms can come back quickly and forcefully. This is called rebound. Your symptoms reappear because there’s no longer enough medication in your body to keep the histamine from working. (Please note that rebound reactions can also happen with other medications for other diseases in ways that do not affect histamine. I’m just being general here for the mast cell disease audience.)

Rebound reactions can be tricky to get out of because the natural response to take medication again to control the symptoms. However, when you do this, you may just be setting yourself up for another rebound reaction when this dose wears off. This is one of the reasons why many doctors prefer that their mast cell patients not take Benadryl frequently. When you are stuck in a rebound loop, it can cause a lot of inflammation and that can trigger your mast cells even more.

There are a few strategies to help decrease the likelihood of rebound reactions. One is to stagger medication dosing. If a couple of your medications can cause rebound, don’t take them at the same time if you can avoid it. Take one an hour or two after the other. Some patients find benefit in layering antihistamines. By taking multiple antihistamines, you can cover lots of histamine receptors. Sometimes, it covers enough that when your diphenhydramine wears off, your body doesn’t notice as much. This could lessen a rebound reaction or even prevent one in some circumstances. You could also take another strong medication to help control your mast cells in another way, like a steroid.

Following a major reaction or anaphylaxis, many providers opt to use a taper for diphenhydramine and steroids. This can help with rebound reactions. A patient doing this might take diphenhydramine every 4 hours for one day, then every 6 hours for two more days, then every 12 hours for two more days. By not stopping cold turkey, you can allow your body to adapt. Steroid tapers do the same thing. You want to give your body a chance to compensate for not having the medication around.

Not all medications cause rebound reactions. The second generation H1 antihistamines like cetirizine or loratadine do not normally cause rebound reactions.

One important point is that many people use the term “rebounding” when they actually mean a different thing called biphasic anaphylaxis. Rebounding specifically means the reappearance of symptoms because the medication controlling them has worn off. Biphasic anaphylaxis is when you have anaphylaxis again after having a first anaphylactic event, regardless of treatment. In this scenario, a person has anaphylaxis and takes medications to treat the anaphylaxis effectively. Sometime later on, the body has a second anaphylaxis event without being exposed again to a trigger. This is not tied to any specific treatment and is different than rebounding.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

How to get out of a reaction cycle

Anaphylaxis and mast cell reactions

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 34

41. Can my mast cell disease go away? Will it ever not be a problem?

There are several common questions that basically all distill down to these sentiments. I’m going to answer them all here.

I have previously answered the question “Can mast cell disease be cured?” in this series but I think this question is a little different. When people ask if mast cell disease can go away, they mean can it become no longer a problem even if it’s not cured. That’s what I’m answering here.

This answer is very complicated so I’m just going to give my thoughts let’s about all sides of this situation.

Yes, it is possible for mast cell disease to be controlled enough to no longer be a problem in your life. But there are a lot of caveats.

The most common presentation of mast cell disease in cutaneous mastocytosis (mastocytosis in the skin) in children. In about 2/3 of cases, children “grow out of” their mast cell disease. Specifically, this means that they lose their skin lesions and have no obvious mast cell symptoms by their late teenage/early adult years. We don’t know why this happens.

However, there are instances where a person who grew out of their childhood CM have mast cell issues later in life. We have a greater understanding of mast cell diseases now and we know that you can have a whole host of mast cell issues without having skin lesions. So it’s not as clean cut as was previously thought.

For more serious forms of systemic mastocytosis, it is possible that with treatment, the disease can be “knocked down” to a less serious category. For example, a patient with aggressive systemic mastocytosis who does chemo may find that it helped enough that their diagnosis is now smoldering systemic mastocytosis. Or a patient with SSM has a big drop in the number of mast cells zooming around after taking interferon and now they have indolent systemic mastocytosis. While symptom severity doesn’t necessarily change when a patient has a less serious diagnosis, that does sometimes happen.

With the exception of childhood cutaneous mastocytosis, all other forms of mastocytosis are considered lifelong ventures. This includes all forms of adult onset cutaneous mastocytosis and all forms of systemic mastocytosis for children or adults. However, there are instances of patients with SM where bone marrow transplant seems to cure their disease. We need to continue to follow mast cell patients who have had bone marrow transplants to see how many of them have recurrence of mast cell disease.

Mast cell activation syndrome is often secondary to some other condition. Basically, one disease irritates your body so much that your mast cells flip out in response to the disease. The disease that caused the mast cell problem is called the primary condition. In these instances, mast cell activation syndrome is sometimes considered to be dependent upon the primary condition. This means that some doctors and researchers feel that if you control the primary condition, the mast cell activation syndrome will go away.

This sentiment seems straightforward but is actually pretty complex. Let’s pull it apart. Let’s say your primary condition is lupus. You are a patient with lupus. The lupus irritates your body so much that your mast cells just go bananas. Now you are a patient with lupus who has secondary MCAS. The lupus in this instance caused the MCAS. But what does that mean? Does that mean that without the lupus, you would never have had MCAS? Or does it mean that you would eventually have had MCAS secondary to something else? This is the topic of a lot of debate. (I personally am of the belief that MCAS is genetic and therefore you were always going to develop it at some point.) So it’s not clear yet whether a primary condition really “causes” MCAS or just wakes it up.

However, what is not disputed at all is that any type of inflammation can trigger mast cell activation and symptoms. So if you are a lupus patient, and your lupus is going crazy, that’s going to really bug your mast cells. If you are able to control your lupus, it will decrease the inflammation, which will calm your mast cells. But calming your mast cells isn’t really the same thing as your mast cell disease going away. Not having symptoms is not the same thing as being cured.

Another thing to consider is that even if the lupus is what triggered your MCAS, once your MCAS is triggered, it’s going to be triggered by everything. You can very easy get locked into a cycle where the lupus irritates your MCAS, which irritates your lupus, and around you go. So in a situation like this, where the mast cell activation is really out of control, it sometimes doesn’t matter what the primary condition is, and controlling the primary condition might not help.

Many patients with mast cell disease have their symptoms controlled enough to live pretty normal lives. Some mast cell patients don’t have really symptoms at all, even without medications. In a small group of MCAS patients, after a year of treatment with antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers, about 1/3 had complete resolution of symptoms and another 1/3 had one only symptom that was a problem. 

However, it’s important to remember that this is not having debilitating symptoms is not the same as not having mast cell disease. These patients are still predisposed towards mast cell activation and should take mast cell precautions for things like surgery or dental work. Many patients stay on antihistamines and/or a mast cell stabilizer even with good symptom control because it affords some protection from bad reactions and anaphylaxis. Patients should only stop regular medication with the supervision and direction of a provider who knows them. Additionally, trialing things like foods you reacted to, or starting an exercise program, require provider input.

You should also keep in mind that mast cell disease can be very erratic. It doesn’t always follow a trend so symptoms steadily improving does not guarantee that symptoms will stay well controlled. So while mast cell disease can be managed enough to not be a problem, there is always the possibility that it will show up again. Once you have a mast cell diagnosis, you are always going to be looking over your shoulder.


The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 33

40. What is mastocytosis of childhood? Is mast cell disease different for children than adults?

Cutaneous mastocytosis in children is the most common form of mastocytosis. True systemic mastocytosis, in which the WHO criteria are met, is very rare in children.

In many ways, mastocytosis in children has huge differences from mastocytosis in adults. The exact reason for this is unclear. Because of how different the disease path can be for children, doctors and researchers sometimes refer it as mastocytosis of childhood. However, there is not officially a distinct diagnostic category.

Unlike in adults, mastocytosis in children is sometimes both benign and transient. Many kids have symptoms that either stay the same or improve as they get older. Many kids grow out of their mastocytosis. About 2/3 of children with cutaneous mastocytosis have no evidence of disease (no skin lesions or symptoms) by their late teen years or early adulthood. Many other children have improvement of symptoms and signs without completing growing out of their condition.

Children with mastocytosis often have some unusual things in their bone marrow biopsies. They often have clusters of mast cells and eosinophils with other cells in their bone marrow. However, the mast cells in those clusters are often normal mast cells and do not have the same markers we see in adults. Many of these children have more mast cells in their bone marrow biopsies than adults with mastocytosis. However, unless the biopsy shows true SM, it does not affect prognosis for the children. Children may have unusual things in their bone marrow biopsies but still go on to grow out of it.

The exception is if the child has true SM. Children with true SM do not grow out of their disease.

Children with mastocytosis often have symptoms that affect multiple organ systems, not just their skin. Abdominal pain and bone pain are often reported. Systemic symptoms do not tell us whether or not the child has SM or whether or not they will grow out of their disease.

An NIH study that included 105 children with mastocytosis found that children with normal baseline tryptase tests had negative bone marrow biopsies. It also found that a tryptase level elevated after anaphylaxis or a bad reaction did not signify that the child had SM. However, they did find that all children with SM had internal organ swelling. Most children with SM were positive for the CKIT D816V mutation.

There are no studies yet on the differences between adults and children with MCAS. There are enough anecdotal findings to suggest that children with MCAS do not grow out of their disease the way children with CM sometimes do.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

Childhood mastocytosis: Update

Progression of mast cell diseases (Part 5)

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 32

39. How are mast cell disease, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and POTS connected? (Continued)

I’m answering this question in two parts because there is a lot of information to relay and it’s important that it is done clearly. This is the second part.

Mast cells are found throughout the body. There is no record of a person living without mast cells. They perform many essential functions. This is the reason why killing off all of a person’s mast cells is not a viable treatment for mast cell disease. While mast cells cause so many symptoms and problems for patients with mast cell disease, life is unsustainable without mast cells.

Let’s specifically consider just a few of the mast cell’s essential functions here and how they relate to POTS and EDS.

Mast cells help the body to regulate blood pressure and heart rate. Many of the mast cell’s chemicals do this so it happens in many different ways all stemming from mast cells. This means that when mast cells are not behaving appropriately, there are many ways in which this dysfunction can lead to not regulating blood pressure and heart rate correctly.

  • Histamine can affect blood pressure and heart rate differently depending upon how it acts on the body. If it uses the H1 receptors, it can cause low blood pressure. If it uses the H2 receptors, it elevates blood pressure. If it uses the H3 receptor, it can cause low blood pressure. When it does this at the H3 receptor, it’s because it tells the body not to release norepinephrine. Not releasing as much norepinephrine lowers heart rate and making the heart beat more weakly.
  • Prostaglandin D2 lowers blood pressure and causes fast heart beat. However, the molecule made by breaking down PGD2, called 9a,11b-PGF2 increases blood pressure.
  • Vasoactive intestinal peptide lowers blood pressure.
  • Heparin, chymase and tryptase can decrease blood pressure. They do this by helping to make a molecule called bradykinin. When this happens, a lot of fluid falls out of the blood stream and gets stuck in the tissues, causing swelling.
  • Thromboxane A2 increases blood pressure.
  • Many mast cell molecules affect the amount of angiotensin II. This molecule strongly drives the body toward high blood pressure. Some mast cell molecules that affect blood pressure this way include chymase and renin.

Another very essential function of mast cells is to make connective tissue. Mast cells help the body to shape itself correctly and to make tissue to heal wounds. When mast cells are not behaving appropriately, their dysfunction can interfere with making connective tissue and wound healing. It can cause wounds to heal very slowly or for there to be too much scar tissue. It can also cause the connective tissue to be too weak or too strong.

The interaction between POTS and mast cell disease

In POTS, the body is already predisposed toward not regulating blood pressure and heart rate correctly. When a person with POTS stands up, their body quickly causes the heart to beat very fast. When your body does this, it takes steps that cause mast cells to become activated. In turn, the mast cells release chemicals to try and regulate the heart rate. However, if you have mast cell disease, the mast cell may release the wrong chemicals, or too many chemicals, failing to regulate the heart rate. This in turn results in a situation where the body becomes very stressed. Stress activates mast cells, which results in more release of chemicals. Patients can very easily become trapped in a cycle where POTS and mast cell disease irritate each other.

POTS can be exacerbated by the use of medications that affect blood vessels. Medications that are vasodilators (that make the blood vessels bigger) are taken by many people, including mast cell patients. In some people, using medications that blocks the action of histamine or prostaglandins can help to improve symptoms of both POTS and mast cell disease. Conversely, some of the medications used to manage POTS, like beta blockers, can trigger mast cell reactions and raise the risk of anaphylaxis. However, some POTS treatments can also help alleviate mast cell symptoms, specifically the use of IV fluids.

A paper published in 2005 found that hyperadrenergic POTS was sometimes found in patients with mast cell activation disorders.

The interaction between EDS and POTS

POTS is a form of dysautonomia. Dysautonomia means dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system that helps to control automatic functions like heart rate, blood pressure and digestion.

In EDS patients, the body does not make collagen correctly. Collagen is the most common connective tissue protein in the body. This can cause vascular laxity. Blood vessels change size depending upon how much blood they need to move through them. If they get larger, it is called vasodilation. When they get smaller, it is called vasoconstriction. When a person has vascular laxity, their vessels can get larger than they should and they can stay that way longer.

POTS is the most common form of orthostatic intolerance in HEDS. Orthostatic intolerance is when a patient has symptoms specifically as the result of standing up. All EDS patients have more autonomic symptoms than healthy people. Among patients with EDS, autonomic symptoms are more common and more severe in HEDS. 94% of HEDS patients have orthostatic symptoms, including lightheadedness, dizziness, palpitations, nausea, blurred vision, and anxiety. Dysautonomia is much worse in HEDS compared to CEDS and VEDS patients.

Patients with HEDS were found overall to have overactive sympathetic nervous systems. However, when their body needed to activate in response to regulate heart rate and blood pressure in response to changing position, their responses were not strong enough.

In EDS patients, the connective tissue does not support blood vessels enough. This makes the harder for the blood vessels to get the blood back to the right places when you stand up, exacerbating POTS.

The interaction between EDS and mast cell disease

Mast cells are involved in making and repairing connective tissue, which involves collagen. For this reason, there are many mast cells living in connective tissues. Mast cells are stimulated when the body is making or trying to make collagen. Because EDS causes the body to make collagen incorrectly, mast cells can become activated to try and make collagen and other connective tissue correctly. When mast cells in one place are activated a lot over a long time, they can activate other mast cells elsewhere, resulting in systemic symptoms.

The interactions among mast cell disease, POTS and EDS

It is undeniable that there is an association among mast cell disease, EDS and POTS. However, there is not much data published on this topic. There was a poster presented in 2015 that found some combination of EDS, POTS and MCAS in a group of 15 patients. This is a very small population and we need larger studies to understand incidence. There is ongoing work to tie this group of conditions to specific genetic markers. However, this also requires further investigation and more patients. In the absence of hard data, we are forced to use some early data and understanding of similar conditions to try and figure out exactly what happens. As more data comes out, this understanding may change.

This is very much a chicken and egg situation where it’s not clear exactly what begets what. EDS is a genetic disorder and considered primary. However, that does not necessarily mean POTS or mast cell disease is secondary in this scenario.

Regardless of which is the initiating condition, the relationship seems to be something like the following:

1. A patient has EDS. They make defective connective tissue. These defective tissues do not support the bodily organs and vessels properly.

2. A patient stands up. Blood quickly moves from the torso into the legs.

3. The blood vessels in the legs try become more narrow and more able to keep fluid in the bloodstream. However, in an EDS patient, the blood vessels are stretched out and not held in the right place because the connective tissue is too weak.

4. The blood vessels in the legs are not able to pump blood back to the heart quickly enough. The body interprets this as having low blood pressure.

5. The nervous system sends signals to increase heart rate to compensate for the “low” blood pressure.

6. The signals sent to increase heart rate activate mast cells.

7. Mast cells activate release mediators to try and regulate blood pressure and heart rate.

8. Mast cell mediators activate other mast cells, eventually affecting other parts of the body.

9. The molecules released by mast cells make blood vessels bigger and more leaky.

10. As fluid leaves the bloodstream and gets stuck in places where it can’t work (third spacing), blood pressure decreases and heart rate increases. This exacerbates POTS symptoms. The cycle repeats.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

Cardiovascular manifestations of mast cell disease: Part 1 of 5

Cardiovascular manifestations of mast cell disease: Part 2 of 5

Cardiovascular manifestations of mast cell disease: Part 3 of 5

Cardiovascular manifestations of mast cell disease: Part 4 of 5

Cardiovascular manifestations of mast cell disease: Part 5 of 5

Hypermobility Type Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Autonomic Dysfunction (Part 1)

Hypermobility Type Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Autonomic Dysfunction (Part 2)

Hypermobility Type Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Autonomic Dysfunction (Part 3)

Hypermobility Type Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Autonomic Dysfunction (Part 4)

Hypermobility Type Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Autonomic Dysfunction (Part 5)

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 1

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 2

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 3

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 4

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 5

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 6

Deconditioning, orthostatic intolerance, exercise and chronic illness: Part 7

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 31

39. How are mast cell disease, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and POTS connected?

I’m answering this question in two parts because there is a lot of information to relay and it’s important that it is done clearly.

Let’s talk about what EDS and POTS are first.

Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a connective tissue disease. It can be, and often is, inherited. About 1 in 5000 people have some form of EDS.

There are several subtypes of EDS. The ones you hear about most are called classical, vascular, and hypermobility. The different forms of EDS used to be distinguished by numbers (like Type I, Type II, etc) but now they use descriptive terms instead. Types I and II EDS are now called classical EDS (cEDS); type IV EDS is now called vascular EDS (vEDS); and type III EDS is now called hypermobility type (hEDS or htEDS). There are also other rare variants of EDS.

Each of these subtypes has distinguishing features that make them unique from the other forms of EDS. All forms of EDS cause major systemic dysfunction of connective tissue, the pieces of you that hold your body together and keep everything in the right place. Generally, in EDS patients, their connective tissues tear easily and heal slowly. They usually (but do not always) show hypermobility in their joints (being double jointed or overly flexibility). Skin that is very stretchy or that heals very poorly is common.

Because you have connective tissues holding your whole body together, EDS can affect your entire body. All patients are at risk for symptoms that specifically impact their joints, muscles and bones. VEDS can significantly affect life span because it increases the risk of an aneurysm or a blood vessel bursting. HEDS patients often have cardiovascular, GI, and neurologic symptoms. CEDS patients often display the trademark skin stretchiness and many have extraordinary difficulties in healing incisions and wounds. Of course, many EDS patients have other symptoms, and there is a lot of symptom overlap among these forms. I am just generalizing here.

There is no cure and treatment is largely about managing symptoms and complications. EDS is usually diagnosed by a geneticist. There are genetic markers for most forms of EDS that can be found with genetic testing. However, the most common form of EDS, hypermobility type EDS (hEDS), does not have a known genetic marker. For this reason, geneticists often assess how hypermobile a patient is and then uses that to support the diagnosis of hEDS.

Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is a form of orthostatic intolerance, which means symptoms and problems caused specifically by standing up. POTS patients have a big jump in heart rate when they stand up (increase of 30 beats per minute or heart rate over 120 beats/minute in adults) that is not due to a drop in blood pressure. POTS is a form of dysautonomia, an umbrella term that covers several conditions in which the body is not able to control some of the body’s automatic functions like heart rate and blood pressure. (For those wondering, automatic is not a typo, and I did not mean to write autonomic, which is related here.)

There are multiple types of POTS. I’m just going to cover neuropathic POTS and hyperadrenergic POTS as they are the most applicable here. POTS can be a primary or secondary condition. It can cause very severely disabling symptoms and effects. It can cause a huge array of symptoms, including dizziness; fainting; exhaustion; inability to exercise; nausea; vomiting; major GI disturbances (both diarrhea and constipation); inappropriate sweating; chest pain; coldness, numbness, pain and weakness of extremities; and anxiety. Some patients are unable to stand up at all.

Neuropathic POTS, the most frequently described, is thought to be the result of the veins in the legs not being able to pump blood effectively. When you stand up from a sitting position or laying down, a lot of blood that was in your torso quickly moves into your legs. This happens to everyone. In most people, the veins in your legs are able to tighten and squeeze effectively to pump that blood out of the legs and get it back to your heart. In neuropathic POTS, your veins don’t seem to be able to do this as well so the blood gets stuck in your legs. Your body interprets this as having low blood pressure even though you have enough blood and it’s just not where your body expects it. In response to the “low blood pressure”, your heart starts beating very fast to try and get enough oxygenated blood to every place in your body that needs it.

Hyperadrenergic POTS is less common but relatively more common in mast cell patients. In this form, the body makes too much adrenaline (and often other similar molecules like noradrenaline). These molecules work together to cause the nervous system to tell the heart to beat way too fast in response to standing up and that blood moving into your legs. In patients with hyperadrenergic POTS, blood pressure is often increased while the heart rate is also increased instead of being normal or low as in neuropathic POTS.

The second part of this question (question 39) will be up in a day or two. Sorry for the length but I don’t think there’s a way to answer this question both clearly and with brevity.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 30

38. What is the difference between the forms of cutaneous mastocytosis?

Cutaneous mastocytosis is a form of mast cell disease in which way too many mast cells are found only in the skin and not in other organs. Over 80% of patients with mastocytosis have mastocytosis in their skin.

Patients who have systemic mastocytosis have too many mast cells in organs that are not in the skin. However, many of them also have too many mast cells in their skin. These patients are said to have “systemic mastocytosis with mastocytosis in the skin (MIS).” This terminology distinguishes these patients from those who only have too many mast cells in the skin.

There are three categories of cutaneous mastocytosis:

Maculopapular cutaneous mastocytosis (MPCM):
Previously called urticaria pigmentosa (UP). Many patients and providers still use the term UP and the term MPCM is more commonly found in research work.
This is the most common form of cutaneous mastocytosis.
UP causes lesions on the skin, often called “spots” or “masto spots”. In adults, these spots are usually little red/brown lesions. Sometimes a small amount of skin is affected. Other times, a lot of the skin becomes covered in spots.
In adults, UP spots are usually permanent. Some people who need chemo find that the chemo makes some of their UP spots disappear.
In children, UP spots are often larger. The shape and number of spots may change as they get older.
In children, UP spots sometimes resolve over time and disappear.
There is a type of UP called telangiectasia macularis eruptiva perstans (TMEP). This used to be a separate diagnosis from UP but we now know that it is just a kind of UP that looks different from the common red/brown spots.
In TMEP, little blood vessels growth very close to the skin and look like little red or brown spots.

Diffuse cutaneous mastocytosis (DCM):
DCM almost exclusively starts in childhood.
DCM does not cause spots. Instead, it causes overall redness and thickening of skin. It can also cause blistering. The blisters and wounds sometimes bleed.

Solitary cutaneous mastocytoma:
The third form of cutaneous mastocytosis is a little misleading in classification. This form is called solitary cutaneous mastocytoma.                                                                      This is a benign mast cell tumor that grows on the skin.                                         Mastocytomas can grow elsewhere in the body. When they do, they are not considered a form of cutaneous mastocytosis.
While the term is “solitary cutaneous mastocytoma”, some people do have multiple mastocytomas on their skin.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 29

37. What is the difference between mast cell activation syndrome, mast cell activation disorder, and mast cell activation disease?

Mast cell activation syndrome refers to a condition associated with very specific symptoms associated with mast cell mediator release. There are multiple sets of criteria for diagnosing mast cell activation syndrome so it is hard to be more specific than this. Generally, patients with MCAS have mast cell symptoms, evidence of mast cell activation seen in urine or blood tests, and response to medications that manage symptoms seen with mast cell activation. Several variations of mast cell activation syndrome now have ICD-10 codes, an important step towards becoming more accepted diagnoses.

Mast cell activation disorder is usually used interchangeably with mast cell activation syndrome. However, when pluralized as mast cell activation disorders, it sometimes refers broadly to any disease characterized by mast cell activation, like mast cell activation syndrome and systemic mastocytosis.

Mast cell activation disease is a broad term used for any disease characterized by mast cell activation, like mast cell activation syndrome and systemic mastocytosis.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 28

36. Is MCAS less serious than SM?


There is a lot of literature presenting data on SM. There is a lot less on MCAS. This is largely because of how recently it has described and the fact that different sets of criteria make it impossible to do large scale studies as have been done with SM. So it’s hard to objectively compare the data because the same volume just doesn’t exist yet.

Many providers and researchers think of MCAS as a form of “preclinical SM”. This term was tossed around in the early 2000s by SM researchers who found patients that seemed to have SM but didn’t meet the criteria for it. There were a few presentations in which an image was shown of a line with the different types of SM shown.

From left to right, the line read:
Preclinical SM/Indolent SM/Smoldering SM/Aggressive SM/Mast cell leukemia

Based upon this figure, and the fact that we are trained to look at lines like this as continuum that either increases or decreases in order, many people latched onto “preclinical SM” (like MCAS) as being the least dangerous. Importantly, the figure refers to the increasing danger of permanent organ damage by mast cells ending up in organ tissues. It does NOT refer to the danger of anaphylaxis.

Indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM) is the least dangerous form of SM and by far the most common. When people ask if MCAS is less dangerous than SM, they usually mean is MCAS less dangerous than ISM. A couple of small study groups have found that prevalence of anaphylaxis in MCAS is less frequent than in ISM. However, this comparison is flawed. Many people have known they have SM for 20+ years. MCAS hasn’t even been a viable diagnosis for 10 years. MCAS is also less likely to be diagnosed due to decreased exposure on the part of many providers. Many MCAS patients are diagnosed with idiopathic anaphylaxis instead so you’re not really looking at a robust population of MCAS patients in these studies.

ISM has a normal lifespan. It is treated the same way as MCAS and the two conditions have remarkably few differences beyond very specific markers that show the body making too many sloppy mast cells.

Some MCAS patients have protracted anaphylaxis and a normal baseline of very serious daily symptoms. It is my personal opinion that the anaphylaxis episodes I have observed in many MCAS patients can be a lot worse than you see in ISM. MCAS patients also have a harder time finding treatment. While ISM patients certainly run into unknowledgeable providers, it is my experience that having an ISM diagnosis is more helpful for facilitating treatment than an MCAS diagnosis.

We need time in order for larger studies and more unifying MCAS criteria to emerge but I am certain that these will follow. MCAS is at least as dangerous as ISM, if not more. Both MCAS and ISM are less dangerous than SSM, ASM and MCL.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:
The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)
The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)