Department: Ask the Experts
Paola Sandroni, M.D., Ph.D., is associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.
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Q I was told I have dysautonomia. What causes this, and what treatments are available for it?
A Dysautonomia refers to any disorder of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system regulates bodily functions that are not under voluntary control, such as blood pressure and bladder function. When the autonomic nervous system is dysregulated—that is, not working properly—you will experience a number of symptoms. Common complaints include dizziness, light headedness, bladder dysfunction, constipation, sexual dysfunction, and inability to sweat.
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There are many different causes of dysautonomia. One cause is autonomic neuropathy, which refers to damage of the peripheral nervous system that disrupts information flow from the brain and spinal cord to every other part of the body. Central autonomic disorders such as multiple system atrophy can also cause dysautonomia; these disorders are characterized by severe dysautonomia and Parkinson's-like symptoms or incoordination.
Dysautonomia can also be hereditary. Some forms are fairly limited, but there is also a rare, devastating form affecting only the Jewish population.
To see what form of dysautonomia you have and how to treat it, a doctor will perform tests. These can include blood testing or autonomic testing, which involves monitoring your blood pressure, blood flow, heart rate, skin temperature, and sweating to see whether your autonomic nervous system is functioning normally.
There is often no specific cure for the underlying disease, though some forms of dysautonomia go away on their own or are self-limited, meaning they don't get worse. Usually, doctors will prescribe drugs that target specific symptoms—such as blood-pressure drop upon standing and bladder dysfunction—and will give advice about lifestyle modifications that may improve the symptom severity.
For more information and to join a support group, contact the National Dysautonomia Research Foundation at ndrf.org or by phone at 651-267-0525.