by Kimberly Allen, RN
Dysautonomia is a term used to describe a number of conditions related autonomic nervous system malfunctions like postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, orthostatic hypotension and neurocardiogenic syncope to name a few. The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that controls the body functions that we don’t think about like our heart beat and breathing. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts, the sympathetic nervous system and the para sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is best known for controlling our “fight or flight” response. It increases our heart rate and breathing as well as increasing blood flow to the muscles that are needed to respond to the perceived threat. On the other hand the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of the more sedate functions like digestion. In essence one prepares us for action while the other prepares us for rest. Normally these two parts of the autonomic nervous system work in perfect harmony and are ready to respond to our body’s needs in an instant.
In someone suffering from dysautonomia that balance is out of whack. Sometimes the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system reacts inappropriately. Researchers do not completely understand why this phenomenon occurs, however, they do believe that some are related to other conditions, like autoimmune disorders or Lyme disease, or injuries especially brain or spinal cord injuries. Remember concussions are brain injuries. Heredity and genetics are also known to play a role in certain types of dysautonomia like familial dysautonomia which is an autosomal recessive disorder.
As a rule the average person can not tell if the child standing next to them has a form of dysautonomia. The symptoms are rarely notices by anyone not trained to spot them. That’s because the symptoms are occurring on the inside of their body where you can’t see them. However, even though you can’t see them they can be medically verified. As with many other conditions the symptoms of dysautonomia can be erratic. Not only can they vary in severity they can manifest in any combination and they also come and go with no discernable pattern. The symptoms of dysautonomia generally manifest during adolescence. Females are five times more likely to develop symptoms of some form of dysautonomia than males. There are a wide variety of symptoms some more serious than others like an extremely fast or slow heart beat, dangerously low or sudden drops in blood pressure, chest pain and shortness of breath. Dysautonomia can also cause severe dizziness and fainting as well as convulsions. Some people experience sudden severe anxiety, migraines and vision problems as well as insomnia and a variety of gastrointestinal problems.
The first step and probably the one that will have the most impact on your treatment is that as soon as you or your doctor suspect you or your child may have some form dysautonomia is find a Dr that understands the disorder and is familiar with treating it. Because the underlying cause is an unknown treatment focuses on managing the symptoms. Research indicates that the most valuable part of the treatment plan involves maintaining an adequate level of activity everyday. This help to keep the autonomic nervous system in balance. Regular exercise also prolongs the time between sympathetic episodes as well as shortens the duration of these episodes. There are also a variety of medications available that have been found to be helpful in managing the symptoms of dysautonomia including certain anti depressants, anti anxiety medications and medications used to treat low blood pressure as well as NSAIDS. In most cases managing dysautonomia is a trial and error approach which requires that both you and your doctor be patient.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.