Signs and Symptoms of Autonomic Neuropathy

Autonomic neuropathy is a group of symptoms that occur when there is damage to the nerves that regulate blood pressure, heart rate, bowel and bladder emptying, digestion, and other body functions. Autonomic neuropathy is a form of peripheral neuropathy. It is a group of symptoms, not a specific disease. There are many causes. 

Damage to the autonomic nerves affects the function of areas connected to the problem nerve. It affects the nerves that regulate vital functions, including the heart muscle and smooth muscles.

Symptoms vary depending on the nerves affected. They usually develop gradually over years. Vital areas can be affected, such as the digestive tract, urinary tract, heart and blood vessels, sweat glands and eyes.

With the digestive tract, symptoms may include: Constipation, Diarrhea, Feeling full after only a few bites, nausea after eating, swollen abdomen, unintentional loss of more than 5% of body weight, and/or vomiting of undigested food. Nerve damage to the esophagus may make swallowing difficult, while nerve damage to the bowels can cause constipation alternating with frequent, uncontrolled diarrhea, especially at night.

If you are having trouble with your urinary tract, you may have difficulty beginning to urinate, feeling of an incomplete bladder emptying, or urinary incontinence (overflow incontinence). Autonomic neuropathy often affects the organs that control urination and sexual function. Nerve damage can prevent the bladder from emptying completely, allowing bacteria to grow in the bladder and kidneys and causing urinary tract infections. When the nerves of the bladder are damaged, urinary incontinence may result because a person may not be able to sense when the bladder is full or control the muscles that release urine.

Autonomic neuropathy can also gradually decrease sexual response in men and women, although the sex drive may be unchanged. A man may be unable to have erections or may reach sexual climax without ejaculating normally. A woman may have difficulty with arousal, lubrication, or orgasm.

Autonomic neuropathy may lead to trouble with your heart or blood vessels. The heart and blood vessels are part of the cardiovascular system, which controls blood circulation. Damage to nerves in the cardiovascular system interferes with the body’s ability to adjust blood pressure and heart rate. As a result, blood pressure may drop sharply after sitting or standing, causing a person to feel light-headed or even to faint. Damage to the nerves that control heart rate can mean that your heart rate stays high, instead of rising and falling in response to normal body functions and physical activity.

Other symptoms may include: abnormal sweating, fainting, and heat intolerance (induced by exercise). Most symptoms of autonomic neuropathy are uncomfortable, but they are rarely life threatening.

Treatment is supportive and may need to be long-term. Several treatments may be attempted before a successful one is found. The outcome and prognosis of autonomic neuropathy varies. If the cause can be found and treated, there is a chance that the nerves may repair or regenerate. The symptoms may improve with treatment, or they may continue or get worse, even with treatment.

There is a wealth of information regarding this topic. Be sure to see your physician if you have further questions or need more information regarding autonomic neuropathy.


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