Dysautonomia (“Dys” from the Greek word for bad or malformed and “Autonomia” referring to the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS)) is an umbrella term referring to a failure of the sympathetic or parasympathetic parts of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It may also refer to an overactive ANS. The ANS is what controls the involuntary functions of the body. It affects the nerves, which carry information from the brain to the rest of the automatic nervous system, including the heart, blood vessels, bladder and sweat glands.
Dysautonomia can cause problems within the heart, affecting heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. It is often a secondary symptom of other chronic illnesses. Some dysautonomia conditions are reversible however, many conditions, such as co-morbidity with Parkinson’s disease are not. It may affect a local area of the body, or be more generalized throughout the body.
Dysautonomia affects over one million Americans and close to 70 million people worldwide. It affects both men and women. Despite its prevalence, dysautonomia may take a long time to be diagnosed due to the lack of awareness among patients and physicians. It is an “invisible” disease, as symptoms occur within the body. Often symptoms are more observable after the patient is exposed to heat, anxiety, or physical activity.
The most common forms are POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), NCS (Neurocardiogenic Syncope), MSA (Multiple Systems Atrophy) and PNF (Pure Autonomic Failure).
Dysautonomia can occur due to injury of the ANS from another disorder, and may be genetic. It may also be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, trauma or a viral illness. Some of the diseases that may cause dysautonomia are:
Diabetes Multiple Sclerosis
Alcoholism Guillian Barre Syndrome
Parkinson Disease POTS
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Lyme disease
Injury to the spinal cord or nerves HIV
Celiac Disease Lupus
Symptoms and Diagnosis
To diagnose dysautonomia, the physician will test the functionality of the ANS, especially on the organs that are affected. Tests will likely include measuring blood pressure and heart rate in several positions, using a tilt table, sweat testing, and deep breathing.
Common symptoms of dysautonomia are fatigue, impotence in men, faintness upon standing, rapid pulse rate with exertion, weakness, dry mouth, cognitive impairment, orthostatic hypotension, urinary incontinence, and constipation.
Treatment and Management
While there is generally no cure for dysautonomia, treatment of the co-morbid illnesses may be beneficial in reduction of the symptoms. Medications may be used to treat the individual symptoms of dysautonomia, such as controlling blood glucose and using medication to treat acid-reflux, or giving injections of botulinum toxin type A to manage hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating). Other management measures can include elevating the head of the bed, and adding a high-salt diet and other lifestyle changes. Taking cooler showers, standing slowly from a sitting position and other postural changes may help.
Depending on the cause of dysautonomia in the individual, prognosis can vary.
A few great places to find reference materials about dysautonomia are the National Dysautonomia Research Foundation, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. At Dysautonomia International, there are excellent materials for patients, physicians and educators, including brochures and slideshows to spread awareness of dysautonomia.