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What is Autonomic Neuropathy?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Feb 06, 2024
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Autonomic neuropathy can be a sign of a number of specific disorders and injuries to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for many involuntary actions in the body, including the regulation of heart rate, digestion, and respiration. When nerves in a section of the ANS are damaged, functioning may be abnormal or completely absent. Doctors can usually help patients manage their conditions by searching for and treating the underlying cause of autonomic neuropathy.

Many acquired and genetic disorders can contribute to autonomic neuropathy. Diabetes, HIV infection, Parkinson's disease, and alcohol abuse are the primary causes of many neural problems. Several autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can also result in ANS malfunctions. Occasionally, a botched surgery or a direct injury to the neck, back, or abdomen can pinch or sever nerves in the ANS. Prescription medications for asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and muscle spasms may also cause nerve damage as an adverse side effect.

Symptoms of autonomic neuropathy can vary considerably depending on the site and severity of nerve damage. When the gastrointestinal tract is implicated, problems may include frequent episodes of diarrhea, nausea, and incontinence. Autonomic neuropathy that affects the heart can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, and high blood pressure. When nerves are damaged elsewhere in the ANS, a person can suffer from vision and hearing changes, sweat gland malfunctions, swelling in the extremities, sexual dysfunction, or a number of other issues.

Since the signs and symptoms of autonomic neuropathy are so variable, doctors generally need to perform an extensive set of diagnostic tests to confirm the condition. Blood and urine tests may be performed to check for diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and the possibility of infection. Diagnostic imaging studies, including computerized tomography scans, are conducted to check for physical damage to the ANS. In addition, a doctor may decide to use an endoscope to carefully inspect the gastrointestinal tract, heart, or lungs.

Nervous system disorders, including autonomic neuropathy, are notoriously difficult to manage. Treatment measures depend largely on the underlying cause of symptoms, and usually involve a combination of prescription medications and lifestyle changes. A doctor can prescribe drugs to improve blood pressure, heart rate, digestive problems, and erectile dysfunction. Specific conditions such as diabetes and autoimmune disorders can also be managed with daily medications. Patients may also be instructed to make dietary changes, abstain from alcohol, or limit their physical activity.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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