What is autonomic dysfunction?

Autonomic dysfunction can refer to a number of rare health problems involving the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for regulating many vital bodily functions, including heart rate, breathing, and digestion. When an illness or injury impairs the ANS, a person can experience a wide range of potentially serious symptoms. Signs of autonomic dysfunction can include sudden drops in blood pressure, fatigue, tremors, breathing problems, and heart irregularities. Treatment measures depend on the symptoms and underlying causes of autonomic dysfunction, but often include a combination of diet, daily medications, and physical therapy.

Most cases of autonomic dysfunction are related to inherited and acquired disorders that affect many body systems. The ANS can be suppressed or damaged by diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Lyme disease, or serious viral infections. Chronic alcohol abuse, long-term exposure to toxic chemicals, and serious injury to the brain or spinal cord can also affect ANS function. Depending on the cause, changes in health can appear very gradually over time or occur somewhat suddenly.

Many people who develop autonomic dysfunction have relatively mild and manageable symptoms. Common problems include easy fatigue, episodes of dizziness or lightheadedness, anxiety, blurred vision, and headaches. Some patients suffer from orthostatic hypotension, or a drop in blood pressure when standing up, which can worsen these symptoms. Digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn may also be present.

Autonomic dysfunction can occasionally be severe enough to significantly affect a person's life. Extreme episodes of fatigue, vertigo, body tremors, heart rate abnormalities, and breathing difficulties can keep some people confined to hospital beds for months. Rarely, ANS problems can induce cardiac arrest or lead to coma or sudden death.

There are several diagnostic tests to help doctors determine the cause and severity of autonomic dysfunction. A clinical procedure called electromyography may be performed to track electrical activity in nerves throughout the body. Ultrasounds and other imaging technologies are used to detect heart and brain defects. Doctors may also examine blood samples to look for signs of certain autoimmune disorders. Treatment decisions are made based on the findings of multiple diagnostic tests.

Patients with mild autonomic dysfunction do not usually require aggressive treatment. They may simply be instructed to make small lifestyle changes, such as improving their diets and limiting physical activity. Increasing fluid and salt intake and taking prescription medications can help reduce the chances of orthostatic hypotension episodes. Additional medications may be prescribed to improve neurological and digestive symptoms if present. Severe ANS impairment is more difficult to treat, although guided physical therapy, medications, and supportive care allow some patients to survive for many years after their conditions peak.

Go up