Dysautonomia: What is It?
October is Dysautonomia Awareness Month, so my blogs for this month will focus on different symptoms of and supportive treatments for dysautonomia.
October 10, 2022 - Written By: Maria Arini Lopez, PT, DPT
Dysautonomia: What is It?
Dysautonomia refers to a condition affecting normal functioning of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS can also be considered the nervous system for the body’s automatic functions, such as digestion, sweating, urination, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and reflexes that dilate or constrict the pupils of the eyes.
The ANS consists of two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These systems operate in a way that balances and checks each other so that the body functions normally.
The sympathetic nervous system, also termed the “Fight or Flight” response, stimulates the body when under stress or physically in danger. Heart rate and breathing become elevated. Blood flow increases to the muscles in the extremities (for running or fighting), while it decreases to the gut and reproductive systems. Who needs to digest lunch or have a baby when running away from a bear?
The parasympathetic nervous system, also called the “Rest and Digest” system, activates after eating (think that huge Thanksgiving day feast that inevitably puts you in a food coma). Blood flow to the digestive organs increases, while heart rate and breathing slow down.
Dysautonomia occurs when the balance between these two ANS systems is disrupted. This might occur due to:
failure of certain components of either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system, OR
overactivity or excessive functioning of the ANS, particularly the sympathetic nervous system
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of dysautonomia include:
Orthostatic hypotension – feeling faint or lightheaded with positional changes due to drops in blood pressure
Postural Orthostatic Tachycardic Syndrome (POTS) – feeling a sense of dizziness or lightheadedness with positional changes with a drop in blood pressure accompanied by rapidly increased heart rate (tachycardia)
Impotence – lack of ability to become aroused in men
Difficulties with thermoregulation– Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis) or inability to sweat (hypohidrosis)
Abnormal heart rates that are either too slow (bradycardia) or too fast (tachycardia)
Digestive complaints such as nausea and diarrhea
Problems with vision (blurry vision, tunnel vision, vision loss)
While there is no available cure for dysautonomia at present, there are supportive treatments and recommendations aimed at alleviating the symptoms of dysautonomia. These include dietary and lifestyle recommendations, medications, and intravenous infusions. Some treatments may work to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to help balance out overactive sympathetic nervous systems.
If this was informative, give it a heart and continue on to read about POTS.
References and Resources
Dysautonomia Awareness Month. Accessed October 7, 2022.
Sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed October 7, 2022.
Parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed October 7, 2022.
Maria Arini Lopez, PT, DPT
Maria Arini Lopez, PT, DPT, CSCS, CIMT, CMTPT is a freelance medical writer and Doctor of Physical Therapy from Maryland. She has expertise in the therapeutic areas of orthopedics, neurology, chronic pain, gastrointestinal dysfunctions, and rare diseases, especially Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.