Dysautonomia and autonomic dysfunction are labels for failures of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to adequately regulate the body’s unconscious or automatic functions and responses. Regulating these responses involves various and multiple organ systems. These include breathing, blood pressure and cardiac functioning, maintaining body temperature relative to the environment, keeping the body upright, mental functioning, and others. The ANS consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, one of which is an exciter and the other a calmer, each linked to specific functions and reactions. The symptoms displayed can be used to determine wherein lies the failure or failures demonstrated by each individual patient at any given time. [See research findings.]
Autonomic dysfunction can be a symptom of an underlying condition or disease process, or a condition in itself. [See related conditions.]
The dysfunction can be extensive, as in multiple system atrophy, or more localized, as in a reflex dysfunction. The symptoms can range from inconvenient to life-threatening. [See symptoms.]
Dysautonomia can be temporary, like the astronauts have when they return from space, or permanent. It can be caused by an underlying condition or disease, or can be inborn.
Autonomic dysfunction, or dysautonomia, is an “invisible” handicapping condition, for most people. They appear perfectly normal, except when they are symptomatic. This may be a primary reason for the lack of timely diagnosis. In some cases, the symptoms are random, spaced widely apart, and not readily observable by a treating physician. Many of the individuals with the symptoms do not recognize them as such, and many, particularly children, do not have the vocabulary to properly report them. A child suffering autonomic dysfunction can be labeled “lazy,” “hyperactive,” autistic, sullen, or any of a myriad of other negative terms, including hypochondriac, because autonomic dysfunction translates to physical behavior. This can also happen to adults. Such labeling prevents diagnosis and management of the condition.
Autonomic dysfunction can kill. Identification and diagnosis is crucial to survival of the symptomatic individual, and sometimes to others, as in the case of a person who suffers syncope [fainting] or sudden cardiac arrest while driving.
Research has demonstrated that identification can prevent deaths and disabilities. Currently there is no cure for severe autonomic dysfunction. Treatment is management-based, centered on remediation of symptoms, patient support, and treatment of underlying diseases and disorders. However, although simple, low cost, bedside tests for autonomic dysfunction have been proved effective as early screening devices, most doctors do not employ them on a routine basis. Failure to identify can result in unnecessary deaths and disabilities. All patients should require their physicians to screen them for autonomic dysfunction, using the simple techniques such as orthostatic blood pressure at bedside, and checking the variations in pulse / heart rate. [See assistive support.]