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ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS

  • Postural hypotension or abnormal heart rate regulation.

  • Abnormalities of sweating, intestinal motility, sexual function, or sphincter control.

  • Syncope may occur.

  • Symptoms occur in isolation or any combination.

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS

Dysautonomia may occur as a result of pathological processes in the central or peripheral nervous system. It is manifested by a variety of symptoms related to abnormalities of blood pressure regulation, thermoregulatory sweating, gastrointestinal function, sphincter control, sexual function, respiration, and ocular function. The differential diagnosis depends on the time course of autonomic dysfunction and whether dysautonomia is an isolated symptom or associated with central or peripheral neurologic symptoms and signs.

A. Causes in the Central Nervous System

Disease at certain sites, regardless of its nature, may lead to dysautonomic symptoms. Postural hypotension, which is usually the most troublesome and disabling symptom, may result from spinal cord transection and other myelopathies (eg, due to tumor or syringomyelia) above the T6 level or from brainstem lesions such as syringobulbia and posterior fossa tumors. Sphincter or sexual disturbances may result from cord lesions at any level. Certain primary degenerative disorders are responsible for dysautonomia occurring in isolation (pure autonomic failure) or in association with more widespread abnormalities (multisystem atrophy) that may include parkinsonism, pyramidal symptoms, and cerebellar deficits. Postural hypotension is also a prominent symptom of idiopathic Parkinson disease and dementia with Lewy bodies.

B. Causes in the Peripheral Nervous System

A pure autonomic neuropathy may occur acutely or subacutely after a viral infection or as a paraneoplastic disorder related usually to small cell lung cancer, particularly in association with certain antibodies, such as anti-Hu or those directed at neuronal nicotinic ganglionic acetylcholine receptors. Dysautonomia is often conspicuous in patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome, manifesting with marked hypotension or hypertension or cardiac arrhythmias that may have a fatal outcome. It may also occur with diabetic, uremic, amyloidotic, and various other metabolic or toxic neuropathies; in association with leprosy or Chagas disease; and as a feature of certain hereditary neuropathies with autosomal dominant or recessive inheritance or an X-linked pattern. Autonomic symptoms are prominent in the crises of hepatic porphyria. Small fiber neuropathies may underlie some cases of postural orthostatic tachycardia due to impaired contractility in denervated venules and resulting preload failure. Patients with botulism or the Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome may have constipation, urinary retention, and a sicca syndrome as a result of impaired cholinergic function.

CLINICAL FINDINGS

A. Symptoms and Signs

Dysautonomic symptoms include syncope, postural hypotension, paroxysmal hypertension, persistent tachycardia without other cause, facial flushing, hypohidrosis or hyperhidrosis, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, dysphagia, abdominal distention, disturbances of micturition or defecation, erectile dysfunction, apneic episodes, and declining night vision. In syncope, prodromal malaise, nausea, headache, diaphoresis, pallor, visual disturbance, loss of postural tone, and a sense of weakness and impending loss of consciousness are followed by actual ...

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