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Autonomic dysfunction can refer to a number of rare health problems that involve the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for regulating many vital bodily functions, including heart rate, breathing, and digestion. When a disease or injury impairs the ANS, a person can experience a wide range of potentially serious symptoms. Signs of autonomic dysfunction may 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 they 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 due to diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Lyme disease, or severe viral infections. Chronic alcohol abuse, long-term exposure to toxic chemicals, and serious injuries to the brain or spinal cord may also impair ANS functioning. Depending on the cause, health changes may appear very gradually over time or come about somewhat suddenly.
Many people who develop autonomic dysfunction have relatively mild, manageable symptoms. Common problems include easy fatigue, spells of dizziness or lightheadedness, anxiety, blurred vision, and headaches. Some patients suffer from orthostatic hypotension, or a drop in blood pressure when standing up, that can cause such symptoms to worsen. Digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn may also be present.
Autonomic dysfunction can occasionally be severe enough to significantly impact a person's life. Extreme bouts 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.
A number of diagnostic tests exist to help doctors pinpoint the cause and severity of autonomic dysfunction. A clinical procedure called electromyography can be performed to track electrical activity in nerves throughout the body. Ultrasounds and other imaging technologies are used to check for heart and brain defects. Doctors may also screen blood samples to look for signs of certain autoimmune disorders. Treatment decisions are made based on the findings of multiple diagnostic tests.
Patients who have mild autonomic dysfunction do not typically need 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 to reduce the chances of orthostatic hypotension episodes. Additional drugs can be prescribed to improve neurological and digestive symptoms if they are present. Severe ANS impairment is more difficult to treat, though guided physical therapy, medications, and supportive care allows some patients to survive for many years after their conditions peak.