Autonomic Dysfunction is called autonomic neuropathy or dysautonomia. Autonomic dysfunction can range from mild to life-threatening. It can affect parts of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) or the entire ANS. The autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (SANS) and the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system (PANS). These systems provide the connection between the brain and certain internal organs and body parts such as the heart, liver, sweat glands, and more.
The SANS is typically responsible for stimulating organs and tissues. For example, it increases the body’s heart rate and blood pressure. The SANS is often summarized as the trigger to the body’s emergency or “fight-or-flight” responses, which prepare the body for stressful situations. In contrast, the PANS is responsible for slowing down bodily processes and helps the body conserve energy and restore ordinary function. Thus, the PANS is responsible decreases heart rate and blood pressure. However, this system also has some stimulatory roles in the urinary and digestive systems.
When damage to these systems and nerves occur, autonomic dysfunction develops. This can result in temporary issues or chronic, long-term conditions that may worsen over time. Symptoms of autonomic dysfunction can include dizziness and fainting upon standing, orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure), exercise intolerance, digestive issues (loss of appetite, bloating, and diarrhea), difficulty swallowing, urinary problems, and visual issues (blurry vision and inability of pupils to react to light quickly).
There are several types of Autonomic Dysfunction including Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Neurocardiogenic Syncope (NCS), Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathies (HSAN), Holmes-Adie Syndrome (HAS), and others.
POTS is reported to affect anywhere from one to three million people in the United States. This condition affects women at a rate nearly five times higher than men. POTS can affect people in any age group and is known to be associated with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a genetic condition that is characterized by abnormal connective tissue. Warning signs of POTS include dizziness, fainting, and rapid heartbeat. Like most autonomic dysfunction conditions, POTS symptoms can range from mild to severe. It is estimated that up to one out of four people with POTS are unable to work due to their condition.
NCS, also known as vasovagal syncope, is characterized by a sudden slowing of blood flow to the brain, causing the patient to faint. This can be triggered by dehydration, long periods of sitting or standing, stress, or heat. Individuals with this condition typically also experience nausea, sweating, and severe fatigue.
MSA is considered to be a fatal form of autonomic dysfunction as it has a life expectancy of approximately five to ten years after diagnosis. MSA is rare and typically occurs after the age of 40. In its early stages, MSA presents with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s such as difficulty initiating movement, body stiffness, urinary incontinence, and increased falls. HSAN is a group of related genetic disorders that result in widespread nerve dysfunction. HSAN can occur at any age and leads to the inability to feel pain, temperature changes, and touch.
HAS mainly affects the nerves that control the muscles in the eyes, which results in vision problems. A common sign of HAS is one pupil being larger than the other. HAS can also affect deep tendon reflexes such as those in the Achilles tendon. HAS is thought to be caused by a viral infection and resulting inflammation that damages neurons.
The common autonomic dysfunction symptom of orthostatic hypotension can often be helped with altering one's lifestyle including elevating the head of the bed, drinking enough fluids, adding salt to a diet (this should be monitored by a healthcare professional), introducing compression socks to prevent blood pooling, avoiding quick positional changes, or prescription medication.
Systrom observed in his practice that the onset of autonomic dysfunction symptoms often appeared after a bout with an infectious disease. This would correspond to the research of those who propose an inflammatory or immune/autoimmune response in these disorders. A small group of POTS patients in part of the study improved with increased fluid intake, compression stockings, exercise training, and medications to down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system. Some also responded well to a vaso-constricting drug.
Ask a specialist at Holtorf Medical Group about our cutting-edge treatment methods for autonomic dysfunction disorders that will minimize symptoms and improve your quality of life.