Autonomic neuropathy can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life. As it can affect their ability to carry out daily activities and lead to discomfort and pain. It can also lead to serious complications, such as:
- heart failure;
- kidney damage;
- gastrointestinal bleeding.
Thus, early recognition and treatment of the condition are crucial to prevent it further. It may help improve outcomes.
The symptoms of autonomic neuropathy can vary depending on:
- the nerves affected;
- the underlying cause.
Common symptoms include:
- irregular heartbeat;
- difficulty swallowing;
- constipation or diarrhea;
- bladder problems.
The causes of autonomic neuropathy are diverse. They can range from underlying medical conditions to lifestyle factors. Diabetes is one of the most common causes, as high blood sugar levels can damage the nerves over time.
In this article, we will look at this autonomic disorder in more detail. We will also explain the symptoms, causes, and possible treatment.
What is Autonomic Neuropathy?
Autonomic neuropathy is a form of polyneuropathy. It affects the involuntary, insensitive nervous system. It relates mainly to internal organs, such as:
- bladder muscles;
- the cardiovascular system;
- the digestive tract;
- sex organs.
These nerves are not under the individual’s conscious control and function automatically. Autonomic nerve fibers form large clusters outside the spinal cord in the:
Autonomic nervous dysfunction occurs in people with long-standing type 1 and 2 diabetes mellitus.
In most cases, the disease occurs along with other forms of neuropathy.
Some conditions affecting the brain or spinal cord can also cause autonomic dysfunction. Thus they can cause something similar to autonomic neuropathy.
Autonomic Neuropathy Symptoms
The most important symptom is low blood pressure. Men may also have difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection (erectile dysfunction). Some patients’ bladders become overactive. It may cause them to urinate involuntarily (urinary incontinence). Others have difficulty urinating (urinary retention) because their bladder is inactive. Your organism may delay gastric emptying (gastroparesis). This person may feel full too soon when eating and may vomit. Severe constipation may occur.
In general, the main symptoms of autonomic dysfunction are as the following:
- digestive and urinary symptoms;
- cardiovascular symptoms;
- sexual dysfunction;
- sweating and temperature regulation;
- eye and vision problems;
- nerve pain.
If somatic nerves are also damaged, the patient may lose sensation. They also can feel tingling in the hands and feet and develop muscle weakness.
Sometimes there is pathological hypersensitivity during autonomic disorder when:
- a slight touch to a certain body area causes severe pain;
- the impact of the disease is significant, and there is no pain.
Pain sensitivity can completely disappear. So, for example, you will not notice a small injury or a cut will. But due to impaired innervation, such a wound takes a long time to heal and often develops into a trophic ulcer.
In severe cases, patients may notice:
- the appearance of vegetative disorders;
- deterioration of the blood supply to the skin. It looks pale, dry, and atrophic.
Often a person gets used to these sensations and, because of this, postpones the visit to the doctor. Read more about the symptoms of autonomic dysfunction below.
Autonomic neuropathy can cause various digestive symptoms, such as:
- loss of appetite.
After all, it controls the digestive process. If the nerves that control the muscles of the digestive tract have damage, the muscles may not work. This leads to constipation or diarrhea.
Autonomic neuropathy can affect the bladder, causing:
- urinary incontinence;
These symptoms occur due to damage to the nerves that control the bladder. It results in an inability to control urine flow. People with the autonomic disorder may experience frequent urinary tract infections. This is due to incomplete emptying of the bladder.
Autonomic neuropathy can affect the heart, causing:
- irregular heartbeat;
- low blood pressure upon standing (orthostatic hypotension);
- rapid heartbeat.
These symptoms occur due to damage to the nerves that regulate heart rate and blood pressure. Individuals with this disorder may experience fainting spells or dizziness when standing up.
The disease can affect sexual function. The following symptoms can be:
- erectile dysfunction in men;
- vaginal dryness or difficulty reaching orgasm in women.
It occurs due to nerve damage which controls sexual arousal and response. Individuals with autonomic nervous dysfunction may also experience decreased libido or sexual desire.
Sweating and Temperature Regulation
Neuropathy can affect the body’s ability to sweat and regulate temperature. So the person can experience symptoms such as:
- excessive sweating;
- a lack of sweat;
- intolerance to hot or cold temperatures.
Nerve damage that controls sweating and blood vessel dilation lead to it.
Eye and Vision Problems
This disorder can cause eye problems such as:
- blurry vision;
- double vision;
- difficulty adjusting to changes in light.
These symptoms occur due to damage to the nerves that control the muscles of the eyes and the pupils. Individuals with autonomic neuropathy may experience dry eyes or difficulty focusing.
Autonomic neuropathy symptoms can cause nerve pain in the feet and hands. Patients may describe it as:
Damage to the nerves that send sensory information to the brain may be the cause. People with autonomic neuropathy may experience using their hands for everyday tasks.
What Causes Autonomic Neuropathy?
Autonomic neuropathy occurs due to nerve damage that controls the autonomic nervous system. As they regulate many of the body’s automatic functions, such as:
- heart rate;
- blood pressure;
- temperature regulation.
The damage can occur in several ways, including:
- Diabetes. The most common cause of the autonomic disorder is diabetes. Particularly if it is poorly controlled. High blood sugar levels over time can damage the nerves that control the organs and systems in the body.
- Autoimmune disorders. Certain autoimmune disorders, such as lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome, can cause it.
- Infections. Some viral or bacterial infections, such as Lyme disease and shingles, damage nerves.
- Toxins. Exposure to certain toxins, such as heavy metals or chemotherapy drugs, leads to it.
- Hereditary conditions. Some hereditary conditions, such as familial amyloid polyneuropathy, can cause autonomic neuropathy.
- Trauma. Trauma to the nerves, such as surgery or injury, can cause autonomic neuropathy.
- Idiopathic. In some cases, the cause of autonomic nervous dysfunction is unknown. So doctors call it idiopathic autonomic neuropathy.
How is Autonomic Dysfunction Diagnosed?
Some common methods used to diagnose autonomic dysfunction are:
- Tilt table test. This test involves lying on a table and slowly reclining to an upright position. This is to measure changes in blood pressure and heart rate. This test can help diagnose orthostatic hypotension, a common symptom of autonomic dysfunction.
- Autonomic function tests. These tests involve measuring the activity of the autonomic nervous system. Doctors perform it through a series of:
- blood pressure;
- heart rate tests.
These tests can provide information about how the autonomic nervous system is functioning.
- Nerve conduction studies. These tests measure the speed and strength of electrical signals traveling through the nerves and can help diagnose the autonomic disorder.
- Skin biopsy. A small skin sample may be taken and examined to assess the number and condition of small nerve fibers in the skin. This test can help diagnose small fiber neuropathy.
- Blood tests. You may order blood tests to rule out underlying conditions, such as:
- autoimmune disorders;
- vitamin deficiencies.
- Imaging tests. Imaging tests, such as MRI, may be good for looking for structural abnormalities in the brain.
In summary, autonomic nervous dysfunction can cause various symptoms that affect multiple systems in the body. It is important to seek medical attention for proper diagnosis and treatment. That’s why we remind you about many neurological practices doctors use in Lone Star Neurology.
- What is the difference between peripheral neuropathy and autonomic neuropathy?
Peripheral and autonomic neuropathy are both types of nerve damage, but they affect different parts of the nervous system. Peripheral neuropathy affects the nerves that control sensation and movement in the limbs. In contrast, autonomic neuropathy affects the nerves that control the body’s automatic functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and temperature regulation.
- What are examples of autonomic neuropathy?
Examples include Sjogren’s (SHOW-grins) syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and celiac disease. These conditions are caused by damage to the nerves that control the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many of the body’s automatic functions.
- How serious is autonomic neuropathy?
Autonomic neuropathy can be a serious condition that affects the nerves that control automatic bodily functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion. It may lead to complications such as orthostatic hypotension, urinary problems, and gastrointestinal disorders.
- What happens if neuropathy is not treated?
This increases the risk of disease progression that causes the nervous system’s pathology. Meanwhile, the body’s protective resources are depleted. A painless myocardial infarction can occur with neuropathy because a person will not feel pain due to the damage to the sensitive nerves.