Exploring the complexities of illness identity and symptom management in seeking a diagnostic label of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS): An inductive approach

Iris Knoop, Stephanie Gu, Shamim Fareghzadeh, Annie S. K. Jones, Nicholas Gall, Rona Moss-Morris*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Downloads (Pure)


Objectives: Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is a debilitating and under-recognized condition of the autonomic nervous system. This study applied Leventhal's Common-Sense Model of Illness Representations to explore the journey to a diagnosis of POTS and to understand its relevance to poorly understood conditions which have common comorbidities.

Design: An inductive qualitative approach was used to explore the processes by which patients formulate explanations and management of symptoms within the search for a diagnostic label and to investigate illness identity in the context of existing diagnoses or multimorbidity.

Methods: Participants (n=29) for this nested qualitative study were recruited from a larger longitudinal study of people who had been newly referred to a specialist POTS service. Semi-structured interviews were conducted via video call. Three researchers coded and analysed data using Reflexive Thematic Analysis and elements of Grounded Theory.

Results: The analysis resulted in three overarching themes: ‘Seeking physiological coherence and validation’, ‘Individual persistence’, and ‘Navigating the cumulative burden’. ‘Accessibility and disparities of health care’ was noted as a contextual factor. Receiving a POTS diagnosis was regarded by participants as providing legitimacy and increased access to treatment. Overall, delays in the diagnostic journey and the lack of a clear diagnosis impacted negatively on patients through increased uncertainty and a lack of clear guidance on how to manage symptoms. Findings also suggested there were great complexities in assigning symptoms to labels in the context of multimorbidity.

Conclusions: Participants' stories highlighted the urgent need for better recognition of POTS so that the self-regulatory process can be initiated from the early stages of symptom detection.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages20
JournalBritish Journal of Health Psychology
Early online date16 Oct 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Oct 2023


  • diagnostic journey, illness representations, postural tachycardia syndrome, reflexive thematic analysis, self-management

Cite this