Autonomic neuropathy, also known as autonomic dysfunction, is an umbrella term for a wide variety of conditions all caused by basically the same thing – nerve damage to parts of the body that control major but involuntary functions like breathing, food digestion, sexual response or sweating.
Nerve damage is often caused by diabetes but there are many other causes such as bad side effects from new medications such as chemotherapy drugs, poisoning, injury to the spine, neck surgery, autoimmune disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and unusual build-up of protein in the organs.
Symptoms tend to center on whatever organ or organs are damaged.
Patients may suddenly not be able to tolerate their usual exercise or daily activities; they may sweat too much or not sweat at all; they have sexual problems such as impotence or constant vaginal dryness; they suffer incontinence; they may have tingling or numbness in their hands or feet; loss of coordination; sudden dizzy spells; sudden drops in blood pressure; difficultly walking; poor vision; sudden problems seeing in dim light; chronic constipation; chronic diarrhea; loss of appetite; suffer heartburn; nausea which may or may not include vomiting and bloating.
The most common causes of autonomic neuropathy are Parkinson’s syndrome, idiopathic orthostatic hypotension, familial dysautonomia (Riley-Day syndrome), and multiple system atrophy with autonomic failure (Shy-Drager syndrome).
Less common causes of autonomic neuropathy include diabetes, autoimmune disorders, alcoholism, degenerative disorders, nutritional deficiencies (B vitamins), nerve trauma, chronic illnesses (like HIV), porphyria, deconditioning, and an unusual buildup of protein in your organs (amyloidosis). The autoimmune disorders that can cause autonomic neuropathy include systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren’s syndrome, Guillain-Barre syndrome, celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Those at a greater risk of autonomic neuropathy include people who are overweight, older, people with high cholesterol and people with high blood pressure. Botulism can also cause autonomic neuropathy. Other things that can cause this disease are certain hereditary disorders, infectious diseases (like Lyme disease), and certain drugs used to treat cancer in chemotherapy.
Treatment depends on the cause and what specific symptoms a patient has.
A patient with impotence often does better with medications such as Viagra. However, if a patient with impotence is going through a round of chemotherapy then nothing may be done until the chemotherapy treatment is over.
Other treatments include combinations of diet changes, lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, physical therapy, medications to treat any disease or condition causing the autonomic neuropathy and stress management techniques. Specific treatment regimens can vary widely for each patient suffering from autonomic neuropathy.
WARNING: Patients prone to sudden fainting spells should not drive, use power tools, climb ladders, swim without anyone else nearby or even take a shower without someone else in the home to help in case of accident.
Autonomic neuropathy cannot be prevented, but there are some things you can do to lower your risk of getting the symptoms, some of which include exercising regularly, avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, and keeping your blood pressure under control. If you have diabetes, it’s recommended that you regulate your blood sugar. Be sure that you’re at a healthy weight; if not, try your best to get there.
Simple lifestyle changes can help you prevent some of the symptoms you may experience due to autonomic neuropathy. Drinking at least 16 ounces of water first thing in the morning before getting out of bed can help increase your blood pressure in only five minutes. You can also limit your caffeine and skip meals that can cause your blood pressure to drop while your food is digesting. Eating a few small meals throughout the day is better than eating three larger meals. Using custom-fitted support socks can prevent blood from pooling in your legs.