Autonomic neuropathy is a nerve disorder that affects involuntary body functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and digestion. It refers to damage to the autonomic nerves. This damage disrupts signals between the brain and portions of the autonomic nervous system, such as the heart, blood vessels and sweat glands, which can cause decreased or abnormal performance of one or more involuntary body functions.
Autonomic neuropathy can be a complication of a number of diseases and conditions. Even some medications can cause autonomic neuropathy as a side effect. Depending on the cause and on which nerves are affected, the symptoms and treatment of autonomic neuropathy are various.
The symptoms of autonomic neuropathy vary, depending on which parts of the autonomic nervous system are affected. They may include:
- Difficulty digesting food,
- Dizziness and fainting upon standing caused by a drop in blood pressure.
- Urinary problems,
- Sexual difficulties,
- Sweating abnormalities,
- Sluggish pupil reaction,
- Exercise intolerance, which may occur if the heart rate remains unchanged instead of appropriately increasing and decreasing in response to the activity level.
Autonomic neuropathy can be caused by a large number of diseases and conditions or can be a side effect of treatment for diseases unrelated to the nervous system. Some common causes include:
- Abnormal protein buildup in organs (amyloidosis), which affects the organs and the nervous system,
- Autoimmune diseases,
- Injury to nerves caused by surgery or radiation to the neck,
- Treatment with certain medications, including some drugs used in cancer chemotherapy, some antidepressants and some heart medications,
- Other chronic illnesses, such as Parkinson's disease,
- Certain infectious diseases,
- Inherited disorders,
Risk factors of autonomic neuropathy include:
- Other diseases, including amyloidosis, cancer, systemic lupus erythematosus and other autoimmune diseases, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, and botulism.
There are numerous complications of autonomic neuropathy. The most severe are:
- Cardiac arrest, cardiac dysrhythmias, sudden cardiac death,
- Blood pressure fluctuations and the risk of cerebral and cardiac ischaemia.
Some inherited diseases that put the person at risk of developing autonomic neuropathy cannot be prevented, but the onset or progression of symptoms can be reduced by taking good care of the health in general and managing the medical conditions. The doctor's advice on healthy living to control diseases and conditions is essential and may include these recommendations:
- Control the blood sugar if you are diagnosed with diabetes,
- Seek treatment for alcoholism,
- Get appropriate treatment for any autoimmune disease,
- Take steps to prevent or control high blood pressure,
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight,
- Stop smoking,
- Exercise regularly.