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What Is Dysautonomia?

About Dysautonomia

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Dysautonomia is an umbrella term used to describe

any condition, disease, or illness cause by a

malfunction or imbalance of the Autonomic Nervous

System (ANS).  

In this section, find symptoms, a description of the ANS, types of Dysautonomia, and detailed descriptions of ANS testing for the different types of Dysautonomia.

Symptoms of Dysautonomia can include, but are not limited to:

Dizziness, fatigue, fainting, increased heart rate (tachycardia), lowering of heart rate (bradycardia). a variety of digestive and urinary problems, tingling/numbness/pain in the extremities, problems swallowing, chronic pain, fluctuations in blood pressure, shortness of breath, chest pain, sleep disturbances, cognitive impairment, chills, feelings of anxiety, and headaches. 

Many patients have symptoms that come and go, are seemingly unrelated, and change over time. This makes dysautonomia very hard to diagnose.

Primary forms of Dysautonomia are not caused by another disease. Secondary Dysautonomia can occur as a result of another disease or condition; such as Diabetes, Autoimmune diseases, Parkinson’s, and even Alcoholism.  Sometimes once the underlying condition is treated, the Dysautonomia symptoms improve.  Some forms are of Dysautonomia are temporary and mild, and some forms are progressive and fatal.  Dysautonomia currently has no cure.  Patients deal with fluctuating symptoms, and treatment involves trying to improve and control these symptoms, both with lifestyle changes and sometimes medications.  

The ANS:

The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two main branches; the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic.  They control the automatic functions of the body that we do not consciously think about - including digestion, heart rate, respiration, organ function, and blood pressure.  They also control how our bodies respond to outside stimuli such as stress, gravity, and temperature.

The Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the “fight or flight” responses and functions of the body.  Some of these include dilation of the pupils, increased heart rate, slowing digestion, and stimulation of the adrenal glands (producing adrenaline).

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the “rest and digest” portion of the ANS.  It stimulates digestion, slows heart rate, and constricts pupils (among other things) that help the body calm itself.  In people without dysautonomia, it acts to perfectly balance out the Sympathetic Nervous System.

Types of Dysautonomia:

There many conditions and diseases that are recognized as forms of Dysautonomia.  Some of them are:


Autonomic Nervous System Testing:

If you or someone you know suspects they may have dysautonomia, there are a number of tests that can be performed by a physician experienced in autonomic dysfunction.  Usually these include Neurologists and Cardiologists; specifically Electrophysiologists (EP), a type of cardiologist that specializes in the electrical signals and functions of the heart.


Specific autonomic tests performed may include:

  • Head Up Tilt Table Test (HUTT): The patient lies on a stretcher-like support. Straps that are similar to seatbelts are attached around the abdomen and legs and the patient is tilted upright. The exact angle of the tilt varies and is usually between 60 and 80 degrees. The tilting goes on for up to 45 minutes, and blood pressure and heart rate measurements are taken.
  • Basic orthostatic heart rate and blood pressure measurements: Blood pressure and heart rate measurements are taken at intervals while laying, sitting, and standing.  Also called, “A Poor Man’s Tilt.”
  • ECG monitoring: Recording the electrical activity of the heart.
  • A cold pressor test: The cold pressor test evaluates efferent sympathetic function. It is carried out by placing the hand in a basin filled with 50% ice and 50% water for approximately 1 min.
  • Isometric hand-grip test: During this test, a patient squeezes a hand-grip until their arm is fatigued, and blood pressure and heart rate are monitored.
  • Deep breathing tests: Deep breathing evaluates the vagal function on heart rate modulation during slow inhalation for 5 s and exhalation for 5 s over 90 s.
  • The Valsalva Maneuver: The Valsalva maneuver is performed by blowing through a closed mouthpiece with a tiny leakage (16-gauge hole) to maintain 40 mmHg for approximately 15 s. It tests several components of the baroreflex arc.
  • Quantitative Sudomotor Axon Test (QSART): The test requires a mild electrical stimulation on the skin which allows acetylcholine, a naturally occurring chemical, to stimulate sweat glands. The QSART measures the volume of sweat produced by this stimulation.
  • Thermoregulatory Sweat Test (TST): The thermoregulatory sweat test and the quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test both determine the sweat gland function and the integrity of efferent cholinergic sympathetic nervous system function.
  • Measurements of catecholemines in the blood (both laying down and standing): Blood levels are measured after resting laying flat for a period of time, and then again after standing for a period of time. 
  • A blood plasma volume test: There are two types of blood volume tests, one is a  nuclear lab procedure used to measure the volume (amount) of blood in the body, the other (called a Daxor) uses a dye to measure levels. The tests also measures the volume of plasma and of red cells in the blood, testing for hypovolemia in Dysautonomic patients.  

Basic cardiac testing should also be performed to rule out other serious cardiac conditions or stuructural abnormalities, including an echocardiogram (ECC), an electrocradriogram (EKG/ECG), a 24 hour or continuous halter monitor, and possibly an MRI of the heart.


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2. The Cleveland Clinic: Dysautonomia
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