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Autonomic Neuropathy facts, diagnosis and Treatments

Updated on January 3, 2014

Autonomic neuropathy information

Autonomic neuropathy is a condition where the nerves innervating the involuntary functions of the body are damaged. It is considered as one of the most serious forms of neuropathy, because the nerves that are affected are somehow one of the most important ones. Damage to these nerves will cause severe life-threatening symptoms. Such examples of involuntary physiological functions affected are heart contraction, perspiration, digestion and even breathing. Like other forms of neuropathy, the main etiologic factor of autonomic neuropathy is diabetes; however, it can also be caused by other outside factors like accidents and other underlying conditions.

Autonomic neuropathy is quite hard to treat because the nerves involved are also quite complex. However, unlike peripheral neuropathy, its symptoms are easier to identify because of the specific body system affected. One of the most common types of autonomic neuropathy is those that affect the bladder. The latter is an organ that is greatly controlled by nerves, without them it will lose its ability to expand and contract in order to hold urine. As a result, the person may have difficulties in urinating or even the complete inability to urinate. The most important thing in order to prevent autonomic neuropathy is to manage existing conditions right away.

Autonomic Nervous system


How to diagnose Autonomic neuropathy?

The diagnosis of autonomic neuropathy is based on the organ or system that is damaged. Generally, your physician will start with a complete cephalocaudal assessment, which may include your history or your current illnesses. Sometimes, the manifestations of autonomic neuropathy may mimic that of other diseases, but with the use of nerve conduction tests and even nerve biopsies, it will be easier to rule out the condition. If the heart is involved, most probably your physician will order an electrocardiogram. The quality of heart contractions and the electrical impulses released from the heart’s pacemaker are also key determinants in nerve damage involving the heart. If other organs like the lungs, the bladder or the gastrointestinal tract are affected, there will also be corresponding exams that will be ordered.

Autonomic Neuropathy symptoms

Clinical Manifestations

Autonomic neuropathy has a wide array of symptoms. They come as very mild and there are also those that are severe. Clinical manifestations are grouped according to the body system or organs that are affected.

Cardiovascular system – cardiac nerves are one of the most important nerves in the body, without them, the human body is unable to survive because blood will not be properly distributed evenly. Heart contraction is controlled by the electrical impulse released by the heart’s pacemaker, which is also controlled by the cardiac nerves. If the latter is affected, there are two possible manifestations that may occur: either the person experiences tachycardia or bradycardia. Vertigo, decreasing blood pressure and capillary refill and syncope are common. For worst cases, cardiac arrhythmias may also take place, which may lead to CVAs, a very life threatening condition.

Respiratory system – along with heart contractions, breathing is also vital for the body to survive because oxygen is the primary gas that is needed by the tissues and cells to proliferate. Although humans have control of how they breathe, nerve damage to the respiratory system pertains to the cellular level of gas exchange. Shortness of breath, difficulties in breathing, exhaustion after a light activity and the lack of energy to do certain things are just a few symptoms of nerve damage in the respiratory system. ABG results will also show gas imbalances.

Gastrointestinal system – this system is involved in four very important physiological functions, namely mastication, digestion, metabolism and excretion. For the GI system to perform the last three functions, it needs a great deal of innervation from the surrounding nerves; if this is absent then the walls of the intestines and other structures will not be able to propel food into the next part of the gastrointestinal system. Symptoms may include dyspepsia, indigestion, delayed gastric emptying and even the inability to eliminate the bowel.

Genitourinary system – the genitourinary system controls involuntary movements as well. Even if you are able to hold your urine sometimes, it does not mean that you are in control of all the organs in it, because urination is such an uncontrollable phenomenon. You may have problems with urinating in itself, urinary incontinence and the complete inability to urinate may also occur. Since the human sexual organs are primarily controlled by nerves, difficulty in getting a penile erection, achieving orgasm and the total lack of sexual drive are just a few symptoms of nerve damage in the sexual organs.

Sweat glands – perspiration may seem to be very minor when looked upon but when nerve damage happens in this structure, excessive or under sweating may occur; this affects the thermoregulatory ability of the body, it can either cause hyperthermia or hypothermia.

Preventing autonomic neuropathy
Almost all autonomic neuropathies are caused by certain diseases and existing conditions. Seldom do you hear a case of autonomic neuropathy where it existed by its own. The key to autonomic neuropathy prevention is to manage the underlying disease the best way possible. If you have diabetes, then you have to control your blood sugar so that it is maintained within the normal range. There are certain diseases, which are difficult to manage; the best thing that you can do is to somehow halt their progression by strictly following medication prescriptions and given therapies. Living a healthy lifestyle and avoiding stress are also helpful.

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Treatment options

Although autonomic neuropathy is oftentimes difficult to treat; there are a lot of medications that can help you deal with this type of neuropathy. They will also vary according to the system that is affected. Autonomic neuropathy can be quite fatal; however, there are a lot of cases that get better when prompt treatment is given.

The best way to heal autonomic neuropathy is to manage the underlying disease causing the condition to occur. For instance, if the reason for the autonomic neuropathy is diabetes, then you have to manage high blood glucose levels to prevent further damage in the nerves. Lifestyle modification is the key to curing autonomic neuropathy as well. Eating healthy, doing activities that will move the muscles and getting enough sleep may seem very simple but by doing all these you will see a great difference after.

Autonomic Neuropathy prevention
Since autonomic neuropathy is a complication of certain diseases, the best thing that you can do is to help manage them with your own efforts. There are diseases that cannot be controlled; however, the only thing that you can do is to slow down their progression. If you feel better, it does not mean that it’s alright not to visit your physician anymore or maintain your compliance with your prescribed medications. You still have to maintain discipline and compliance at all times. To better prevent the occurrence of autonomic neuropathy, avoid vices like smoking and alcohol intake because this will only aggravate your condition. Alcohol has been found to deplete essential nutrients that are good for nerve health.

Overcoming Autonomic Neuropathy
Suffering from a condition that evolved because of your current disease can be stressing sometimes. You already have an existing condition then another one comes along and adds up to the problem; it’s definitely disappointing. To overcome your situation, you need all the help and support that you can get from your family and friends. You may also join forums online; this will greatly help you because members of these forums have the same problem as you do. You will be able to learn many things and stories along the way, which will allow you to accept your condition more.


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