Diabetic autonomic neuropathy is a type of diabetic neuropathy that affects the autonomic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that regulates involuntary functions, such as breathing and digestion. A number of conditions can cause autonomic neuropathy, but diabetic autonomic neuropathy may be the most common type. Autonomic neuropathy usually damages the part of the nervous system responsible for involuntary or automatic physical functions. It can lead to problems with almost any physical function, including digestion, urinary continence, and sexual function.
The autonomic nerve damage associated with diabetes is most likely in diabetics who fail to adequately control their blood glucose levels. The risk of diabetic autonomic neuropathy usually increases with time. Diabetics who have had diabetes for longer than 25 years usually suffer from an increased risk of autonomic neuropathy, even if they are very good at controlling blood sugar levels.
Symptoms of diabetic autonomic neuropathy may vary, depending on the ways in which nerve damage has affected physical functioning. Problems regulating blood pressure are common. Sexual dysfunction, such as erectile dysfunction in men or vaginal dryness in women, can occur. Urinary problems and increased or decreased perspiration may occur as a result of diabetic autonomic neuropathy. Problems regulating heart rate can lead to exertion intolerance, and pupils may no longer dilate in response to light, leading to vision problems.
Most physicians are able to diagnose diabetic autonomic neuropathy based on the patient's symptoms. Because diabetes is considered a very common cause of autonomic neuropathy, most physicians suspect this type of nerve damage when diabetics present with its telltale signs. People who are not diabetic, but may be experiencing autonomic neuropathy due to another disorder, may be more likely to undergo diagnostic tests.
Treatment for diabetic autonomic neuropathy can vary, depending on which physical systems have felt the effect of nerve damage. Medications are usually prescribed to help support the various physical functions that can falter due to autonomic nerve damage. Drugs can help maintain blood pressure, regulate heart rate, treat erectile dysfunction and ejaculatory dysfunction, and support healthy bladder function and healthy digestion.
Lifestyle and dietary changes may be necessary to help manage the symptoms of diabetic autonomic neuropathy. A high-fiber diet can help ease digestion, and bladder retraining exercises can help increase urinary tract function. Patients with blood pressure problems may need to consume more liquids and more sodium.