Dysautonomia: Symptoms, types, and treatment

Dysautonomia refers to a wide range of conditions that affect the autonomic nervous system.

Symptoms include fainting, cardiovascular issues, and breathing problems. It is linked to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.

Dysautonomias come in many forms, but they all involve the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS is responsible for maintaining a constant internal temperature, regulating breathing patterns, keeping blood pressure steady, and moderating the heart rate. It is also involved in pupil dilation, sexual arousal, and excretion.

Symptoms of dysautonomia usually appear as problems with these particular systems.

Dysautonomia affects an estimated 70 million people worldwide.

This article looks at some of the different types of dysautonomia, their symptoms, and treatments.

Fast facts about dysautonomia

There are around 15 types of dysautonomia.

Primary dysautonomia is usually inherited or due to a degenerative disease, while secondary dysautonomias result from another condition or injury.

The most common types are neurocardiogenic syncope, which leads to fainting. It affects millions of people globally.

There is no single treatment that addresses all dysautonomias.

Symptoms

Dysautonomia neural network
Dysautonomia is a series of conditions affecting the neural network that controls automatic processes such as breathing, pupil dilation, and the heartbeat.

There are many different types of dysautonomia, and symptoms will differ for each one. In many cases, symptoms are not visible and occur internally.

However, there are common traits that can occur in people with dysautonomia.

Symptoms can be hard to predict. These effects can come and go and normally vary in how severe they are. A particular physical activity can trigger more severe symptoms. This may cause people with dysautonomia to avoid overexertion.

Common symptoms include:

an inability to stay upright

dizziness, vertigo, and fainting

fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat

chest pain

low blood pressure

problems with the gastrointestinal system

nausea

disturbances in the visual field

weakness

breathing difficulties

mood swings

anxiety

fatigue and intolerance to exercise

migraines

tremors

disrupted sleep pattern

frequent urination

Temperature Regulation Problems

concentration and memory problems

poor appetite

overactive senses, especially when exposed to noise and light

These can occur in a range of combinations, making dysautonomia a difficult condition to diagnose.

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Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome

Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) affects between 1 and 3 million people in the United States (U.S.). Around 80 percent of them are female. It often affects people with an autoimmune condition.

Symptoms can include:

lightheadedness and fainting

tachycardia, or abnormally fast heart rate

chest pains

shortness of breath

stomach upset

shaking

becoming easily exhausted by exercise

over-sensitivity to temperatures

POTS is normally a secondary dysautonomia. Researchers have found high levels of auto-immune markers in people with the condition, and patients with POTS are also more likely than the general population to have an autoimmune disorder, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), as well.

Apart from auto-immune factors, conditions that have been linked to POTS or POTS-like symptoms include:

some genetic disorders or abnormalities

diabetes

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a collagen protein disorder than can lead to joint hypermobility and “stretchy” veins

infections such as Epstein-Barr virus, Lyme disease, extra-pulmonary mycoplasma pneumonia, and hepatitis C

toxicity from alcoholism, chemotherapy, and heavy metal poisoning

trauma, pregnancy, or surgery

Research into the causes of POTS is ongoing. Some scientists believe it might be due to a genetic mutation, while others think it is an autoimmune disorder.

Multiple system atrophy

Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is less common than POTS and NCS. It is more likely around the age of 55 years.

MSA is estimated to affect between 2 and 5 people in every 100,000. It is often mistaken for Parkinson’s disease because the early symptoms are similar.

In the brains of people with MSA, certain regions slowly break down, in particular the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and brain stem. This leads to motor difficulties, speech issues, balance problems, poor blood pressure, and problems with bladder control.

MSA is not hereditary or contagious, and it is not related to MS. Researchers know little else about what may cause MSA. As a result, there is no cure and no treatment. This is because of its slow progression.

Treatment can, however, manage specific symptoms through lifestyle changes and medications.

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