How is autonomic dysfunction treated?

Treating or managing any underlying cause is key. For example, if the underlying cause is diabetes, then controlling blood sugars will be the main treatment. In some cases, treatment of the underlying disease may allow damaged nerves to repair and regenerate. Other treatments are aimed at improving daily quality of life and managing specific symptoms through medications and lifestyle modifications. A combination of approaches is likely to result in the best symptom management.

Specific symptom management

GI symptoms: Certain medications may be prescribed to help empty stomach more rapidly (i.e., Reglan®) or ease constipation (i.e., laxatives). Modify diet by increasing fiber intake.

Urinary symptoms: Retrain the bladder by following a schedule, and/or take medications to help with complete bladder emptying and decrease overactive bladder symptoms (i.e., bethanechol and Ditropan®).

Exercise intolerance: Join a rehabilitation program to ease into a custom exercise routine or begin physical activity at home at a slow rate.

Sexual dysfunction: For men, certain medications may be recommended for erectile dysfunction (i.e. Viagra®, Cialis®). For women, vaginal lubricants may be recommended.

Stress and anxiety: Stress-relieving activities and techniques (i.e. yoga, visualization, massage therapy), as well as certain medications may be recommended (i.e., Celexa®, Effexor®). Numbness and tingling: Certain medications may be recommended to help decrease associated pain (i.e. Neurontin®, Cymbalta®).

Lifestyle changes to improve vascular tone:

  • Use physical counter-maneuvers such as leg crossing, leg raising, toe crunching, and lower extremity muscle contracting to increase blood pressure and help pump venous blood back to heart.
  • Perform lower extremity exercises daily to improve the strength of the leg muscles. This will help prevent blood from pooling in the legs when standing and walking. Preferred exercises include walking, jogging, swimming, and/or using a stationary bike.

Medications to improve vascular tone:

  • Fludrocortisone: improves blood vessel response and causes fluid retention
  • Midodrine: produces increase in vascular tone and elevation of blood pressure; has no effect on heart rate
  • Beta-blockers: prevent veins from opening excessively and help lower heart rate
  • Pyridostigmine: causes blood vessels to constrict which causes slight increase in blood pressure; has no effect on heart rate

Lifestyle changes to improve blood pressure:

  • Drink 500ml (16 oz.) of water quickly and all at once, first thing in the morning (before getting out of bed) and when bad symptoms occur. This will result in an increased blood pressure within 5 minutes. The effects should last up to 1 hour and may improve orthostatic intolerance (OI). This condition involves symptoms associated with standing upright and improved by lying down.
  • Avoid large meals that can cause low blood pressure during digestion. It is better to eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day than to eat three large meals.
  • Avoid excessive caffeine intake, as it may increase urine production and reduce blood volume.

Lifestyle changes to improve blood volume:

  • Raise the head of your bed by 6-10 inches. The entire bed must be at an angle. Raising only the head portion of the bed at waist level or using pillows will not be effective. Raising the head of the bed will cut urine formation overnight, allowing for more volume in the circulation in the morning. You may use cinder blocks or bed raising kits.
  • Drink 2-2.5 liters (about 8.5 to 11 cups) of fluids/day.
  • Use custom-fitted elastic support stockings. These will reduce a tendency for blood to pool in legs when you are standing and may improve OI. An abdominal binder or Spanx® may also be useful. Thigh-high stockings are best with some abdominal compression, with pressure of at least 20-30 mmHg (30-40 mmHg pressure is ideal). Put them on first thing in the morning and remove before going to bed.
  • Increase the sodium intake in your diet to 3-5 grams/day. If no improvement is noticed and blood pressure remains stable, you may increase sodium intake to 5-7 grams/day. This will help the body retain fluid in the blood vessels to compensate for low blood pressure or excessive pooling of blood in veins. Please note that 1 teaspoon of salt equals 5g and 1/2 teaspoon of salt equals 3g.

Salty Food Ideas (1000 mg = 1 g)
ItemAmountMg of salt
Green olives10 medium529 mg
Pretzels1 cup/15 twists543 mg to 1,715 mg
Beef jerky1 large piece443 mg
Pumpkin seeds (packaged)1/4 cup950 mg
Kale chips (packaged) 1 cup1 cup431 mg
Artichoke hearts1/2 cup388 mg
Whole dill pickle1 large pickle420 mg
Broth1 bouillon cube1,200 mg
Soy sauce1 teaspoon335 mg
Salami1 slice226 mg
Sun-dried tomatoes1 cup1,047 mg
Salt-water crab1 leg1,436 mg
Cottage cheese (small curd)1 cup911 mg
V8® drink12 ounces690 mg
Tomato sauce (canned)1 cup1,284 mg
Canned green beans1/2 cup390 mg
Chicken noodle soup1 cup720 mg
Gatorade® sports drink8 ounces110 mg
Salt tablet 1 tab 1 g1 tablet1 g

Exercises

Exercises for autonomic neuropathy to increase blood volume and physical function may be done at home, at the gym, with a physical therapist, or through a local cardiac rehabilitation program, depending on your comfort level and beginning condition. It is best to begin with exercises that do not cause orthostatic stress such as reclined exercises which may include stretches, yoga poses (in seated or lying position), recumbent bicycle, rowing or swimming. Most individuals will begin at level 2, but before beginning any routine it is important to understand your own comfort level as well as determining a starting point with your health care provider.

Reclined gentle movements (level 1)

Leg pillow squeeze: While lying in bed, place pillow between legs and squeeze, hold for 10 sec, rest and repeat.

Arm pillow squeeze: Place pillow folded pillow between palms and squeeze together (like in a praying position), hold for 10 sec, rest and repeat.

Side leg lifts: While lying on your side, lift leg up sideways and then bring leg back down without touching the opposite leg and repeat.

Front leg lifts: While lying on your back, lift leg up, point toes towards ceiling, and repeat.

Gentle stretches

Recumbent cardio exercises (level 2)

Rowing: Use rowing machine 2-5 minutes per day and increase on weekly basis. Try to reach 45 minutes per day on five days a week.

Swimming: Always swim with a partner or where someone can see you just in case symptoms occur.

Weight training (specifically leg and core muscle training): Begin with light weights and use in reclined or seated position. Try to avoid lifting above head or in any standing position.

Normal exercises (level 3)

Eventually you may get to the point where you are ready to participate in normal upright cardiovascular activities, such as walking, jogging, bicycling and running. Once you get to a good and safe point, you can begin these types of exercises and eventually increase your time to 45 minutes per day three times per week.

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