Dysautonomia refers to a group of medical conditions caused by problems with the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This part of your nervous system controls involuntary body functions like your heartbeat, breathing and digestion. When the ANS doesn’t work as it should, it can cause heart and blood pressure problems, trouble breathing and loss of bladder control.
Dysautonomia is a general term for a group of disorders that share a common problem – that is, an autonomic nervous system (ANS) that doesn’t function as it should. The ANS is the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary body functions (functions you don’t consciously control) like your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, digestion, body and skin temperature, hormonal function, bladder function, sexual function and many other functions.
When the ANS doesn’t work the way it should, it can cause heart and blood pressure problems, breathing trouble, loss of bladder control and many other problems.
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Dysautonomia, also called autonomic dysfunction or autonomic neuropathy, is relatively common. Worldwide, it affects more than 70 million people. It can be present at birth or appear gradually or suddenly at any age. Dysautonomia can be mild to serious in severity and even fatal (rarely). It affects women and men equally.
Dysautonomia can occur as its own disorder, without the presence of other diseases. This is called primary dysautonomia. It can also occur as a condition of another disease. This is called secondary dysautonomia.
Examples of diseases in which secondary dysautonomia can occur include:
Dysautonomia happens when the nerves in your ANS don’t communicate as they should. When your ANS doesn’t send messages or receive messages as it should or the message isn’t clear, you experience a variety of symptoms and medical conditions.
Dysautonomia can affect ANS functions including:
There are many symptoms of dysautonomia. Symptoms vary from patient to patient. Symptoms can be present some of the time, go away, and return at any time. Some symptoms may appear at a time of physical or emotional stress or can appear when you are perfectly calm. Some symptoms may be mild in some patients; in others, they may interfere constantly with daily life.
A common sign of dysautonomia is orthostatic intolerance, which means you can’t stand up for long, without feeling faint or dizzy. Other signs and symptoms of dysautonomia you may experience include:
|Symptoms of Dysautonomia|
|Balance problems||Noise/light sensitivity||Shortness of breath|
|Chest pain/discomfort||Dizziness, lightheadedness, vertigo||Swings in body and skin temperature|
|Ongoing tiredness||Visual disturbances (blurred vision)||Difficulty swallowing|
|Nausea and vomiting, GI problems (constipation)||Fast or slow heart rate, heart palpitations||Brain “fog”/ forgetfulness/can’t focus|
|Large swings in heart rate and blood pressure||Weakness||Mood swings|
|Fainting, loss of consciousness||Sweat less than normal or not at all||Sleeping problems|
|Migraines or frequent headaches||Dehydration||Frequent urination, incontinence|
|Erectile dysfunction||Low blood sugar||Exercise intolerance (heart rate doesn’t adjust to changes in activity level)|
|Symptoms of Dysautonomia|
|Shortness of breath|
|Dizziness, lightheadedness, vertigo|
|Swings in body and skin temperature|
|Visual disturbances (blurred vision)|
|Nausea and vomiting, GI problems (constipation)|
|Fast or slow heart rate, heart palpitations|
|Brain “fog”/ forgetfulness/can’t focus|
|Large swings in heart rate and blood pressure|
|Fainting, loss of consciousness|
|Sweat less than normal or not at all|
|Migraines or frequent headaches|
|Frequent urination, incontinence|
|Low blood sugar|
|Exercise intolerance (heart rate doesn’t adjust to changes in activity level)|
Certain conditions and events can bring on the symptoms of dysautonomia. These triggers include:
Dysautonomia is a medical term for a group of different conditions that share a common problem – improper functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Some of the conditions caused by primary dysautonomia include:
One of the tests your healthcare provider will use to diagnose some forms of dysautonomia is a tilt table test.
During this test:
Other tests your healthcare provider may use to aid in the diagnosis include sweating tests, breathing tests, lab (blood work) tests, and heart workup (electrocardiography). Other tests may be done to determine if other diseases or conditions are causing dysautonomia.
There’s no cure for this condition, but you can manage the symptoms. Your healthcare provider may suggest many different therapies to manage your particular dysautonomia symptoms.
The more common treatments include:
The complications of dysautonomia vary depending on the symptoms you experience. In severe cases, people might have life-threatening complications such as pneumonia and respiratory failure.
Dysautonomia can also cause:
You may be at higher risk for dysautonomia if you:
You can’t prevent dysautonomia. You can take steps to manage your symptoms and keep them from getting worse. See upcoming section, “Living With” for tips and more information.
No one can know for sure what your life will look like living with dysautonomia. Symptoms vary from person to person. The severity of the condition varies from person to person – from mild and manageable to severe and disabling. The course of the condition changes too – in some people, symptoms are always present; in others symptoms appear for weeks or months or years, disappear, and then reappear. In other words, dysautonomia is unpredictable.
Because of all these variables, it’s important to find a healthcare provider who you are comfortable with and who is knowledgeable in dysautonomia. You may want to start a health diary to share with your healthcare provider. In this daily diary, you can record your symptoms, events that possibly triggered your symptoms, and how you are feeling emotionally. This information can help develop and tweak your plan of care.
To help manage your dysautonomia symptoms:
Read other wellness tips for living with dysautonomia.
Contact your doctor if you experience symptoms of dysautonomia, especially frequent dizziness or fainting.
If you have dysautonomia, you may want to ask your doctor:
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/10/2020.
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