About Dysautonomia

What is Dysautonomia?

Dysautonomia is a term used to describe dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. When the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system is lost chaos can ensue. When the body detects a stressor, the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, triggering what is known as the stress response. This will increase our heart and breathing rates, dilate our pupils, and divert blood from our digestive and reproductive systems, helping to bring more oxygen and energy resources to our skeletal muscles to prepare for flight or fight. This is a normal healthy response to a major stressor. However, if this system does not get shut off once the stress has been removed or if the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for returning the body to a calm state, does not get turned on problems can arise. Many symptoms of dysautonomia are consistent with the body being stuck in a highly sympathetic state and include:

  • Dizziness
  • Brain fog
  • Light-headedness or fainting on standing or exertion
  • Abnormally fast heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Temperature intolerance
  • Reproductive problems

Who does it effect and how?

Autonomic dysfunction can manifest in several different ways. This dysfunction affects primarily adolescent and young adult women, though men and older adults can also be affected. Several different types of dysautonomia have been identified, though no one specific cause has been determined. It is thought that a major stressful event, including physical, mental or emotional, chemical, and/or environmental stressors, may contribute to this homeostatic imbalance. Researchers are also currently investigating possible autoimmune or genetic links.

How does Dysautonomia occur?

Dysautonomia can arise from a primary disorder of the autonomic nervous system. Some examples of this include Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), and Neurocardiogenic Mediated Syncope (NMS). Dysautonomia symptoms can also develop as a side effect of another illness, such as the autonomic dysfunction seen in Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Sjogren’s Disease, and Diabetes Mellitus. Treating the primary underlying disorder is essential to treat the coexisting autonomic dysfunction. Furthermore, cases of dysautonomia have been reported to arise following traumatic injury to the head or neck. This can include concussion and whiplash associated injuries. Proper management and treatment of these physical injuries is important for reducing the risk of long term complications.

Current Treatments

Current treatments include lifestyle modifications such as diet, a specialized exercise program, stress reduction techniques, as well as prescription medications. Figuring out the source of dysfunction can help to further customize treatment plans.

In certain cases, accidents and injuries, particularly to the head and neck, can precede the onset of symptoms. Being proactive and seeking professional help when dealing with a head or neck injury can prevent chronic long-term dysfunction.


Dysautonomia International http://www.dysautonomiainternational.org/page.php?ID=34

National Dysautonomia Research Foundation http://ndrf.org

Goldstein, D. S. (2002). Dysautonomias: Clinical Disorders of the Autonomic Nervous System.Annals of Internal Medicine,137(9), 753. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-137-9-200211050-00011

Goldstein, D. S. (2003). Dysautonomia in Parkinsons disease: neurocardiological abnormalities.The Lancet Neurology,2(11), 669-676. doi:10.1016/s1474-4422(03)00555-6

Grubb, B. P., & Karas, B. (1999). Clinical Disorders of the Autonomic Nervous System Associated with Orthostatic Intolerance: An Overview of Classification, Clinical Evaluation, and Management. Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology,22(5), 798-810. doi:10.1111/j.1540-8159.1999.tb00546.x

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