Understanding Autonomic Dysfunction

What is autonomic dysfunction?

Autonomic dysfunction develops when the nerves of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) are damaged. This condition is called autonomic neuropathy or dysautonomia. 

Autonomic dysfunction can range from mild to life-threatening. It can affect part of the ANS or the entire ANS. Sometimes the conditions that cause problems are temporary and reversible;  while others can be chronic or long term, and may continue to worsen over time.

Diabetes and Parkinson’s disease are examples of chronic conditions that often lead to autonomic dysfunction.

Symptoms of autonomic dysfunction

These are some symptoms that may indicate the presence of an autonomic nerve disorder:

  • dizziness and fainting upon standing up, or orthostatic hypotension
  • an inability to alter heart rate with exercise, or exercise intolerance
  • sweating abnormalities, which could alternate between sweating too much and not sweating enough
  • digestive difficulties, such as a loss of appetite, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or difficulty swallowing
  • urinary problems, such as difficulty starting urination, incontinence, and incomplete emptying of the bladder
  • sexual problems in men, such as difficulty with ejaculation or maintaining an erection
  • sexual problems in women, such as vaginal dryness or difficulty having an orgasm
  • vision problems, such as blurry vision or an inability of the pupils to react to light quickly

You can experience any or all of these symptoms depending on the cause, and the effects may be mild to severe; while symptoms such as tremor and muscle weakness may occur due to specific types of autonomic dysfunction.

Orthostatic intolerance is a condition whereby your body is affected by changes in position. An upright position triggers symptoms of dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, sweating, and fainting. Lying down improves the symptoms. Often this is related to an improper regulation of the ANS.

Orthostatic hypotension is a type of orthostatic intolerance. Orthostatic hypotension occurs when your blood pressure drops significantly as you stand up. This can cause lightheadedness, fainting, and heart palpitations. Injury to nerves from conditions like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease can cause episodes of orthostatic hypotension due to autonomic dysfunction.

Other types of orthostatic intolerance due to autonomic dysfunction include:

  • postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome
  • neurocardiogenic syncope or vasovagal syncope

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