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What is Dysautonomia?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Dysautonomia is a blanket term for a family of conditions which involve the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system handles things like swallowing, breathing, the heartbeat, and other important functions which keep the body running smoothly. In a patient with dysautonomia, the autonomic nervous system does not work right, causing problems which can range from occasional dizziness to crippling pains.

Historically, this condition was known as “neurasthenia,” and it was said to appear in people with “weak” nervous systems. As medical science advanced, doctors began to realize that a range of conditions such as Shy-Drager Syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, neurocardiogenic syncope, pure autonomic failure, and Ruley-Day Syndrome actually involved some level of failure on the part of the autonomic nervous system. Although recognition encouraged diagnosis, treatment options are often limited, due to an imperfect understanding of dysautonomia.

An assortment of symptoms are associated with dysautonomia, including dizziness, tachycardia, poor motor coordination, headaches, difficulty swallowing, fainting, indifference to pain, and muscle spasms. Many patients also experience depression, in part because they sometimes have difficulty finding physicians who will treat them. Because the symptoms are often nonspecific and difficult to pin down, doctors may dismiss the patient as a complainer, rather than recognizing that the patient may actually have a medical condition.

Several potential causes for dysautonomia have been identified, including exposure to toxins, genetic inheritance, infections, and injuries. However, no firm cause has been proved to be linked with dysautonomia. Conditions in this family are also difficult to treat, with some patients trying an assortment of medications including pain killers, antidepressants, and drugs to manage heart rhythm.

The severity of dysautonomia varies considerably. Some patients live relatively normal, healthy lives and they are able to be quite active. Others may be bedridden or frequently ill, and in the case of people without a firm diagnosis, family members, employees, and friends may dismiss the severity of the condition. Much more research on dysautonomia is needed to learn more about what causes it and how to manage it.

For patients seeking care, sometimes several doctor visits are required. Some doctors are more receptive than others to non-specific complaints. It can help to visit a neurologist to get an evaluation of nervous system function, or to seek a doctor recommended by an organization which supports dysautonomia patients. Joining a support group or organization can also be very helpful for patients who are trying to cope with a new diagnosis.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By burcidi — On Feb 09, 2012

Has anyone been having anxiety or panic attacks due to dysautonomia?

I've been having them for a long time and my doctor mentioned that rarely, these could be related to autonomic nervous system dysfunctions. But he said that he doubts I have this and simply prescribed me more anxiety medications.

I do however have some of the other symptoms related to dysautonomia disease. I feel fatigue, my heart races often and I get migraines from time to time.

I'm wondering, has anyone with dysautonomia experienced anxiety with this condition at all?

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 09, 2012

My friend developed hypotension for no apparent reason. Her blood pressure dropped so low that she had trouble functioning, but she seemed otherwise healthy.

I know that she eats mostly vegetables, so there is nothing in her diet that could raise her blood pressure, unlike the diets of most Americans. She doesn't even add table salt to her food.

Her doctor suggested she try drinking one cup of coffee in the morning. Amazingly, this helped raise her pressure to a near-normal level.

He only suggested this because he could not pinpoint a reason for her hypotension. I hope that she doesn't have some unknown dysautonomia lurking in her body and that coffee will keep her hypotension at bay.

By cloudel — On Feb 08, 2012

My grandfather developed Shy-Drager syndrome when he reached his sixties. The first sign that something was wrong was when he became extremely lightheaded after standing up. His blood pressure would drop when he did this.

Before long, he started having the shakes. He also had trouble bending his joints. Every motion he made was stiff and robotic, and he didn't seem human anymore.

It was terrible to watch him go from a person who could move about just fine to someone with no control over his muscles. He even became incontinent and had to have a permanent catheter.

By shell4life — On Feb 08, 2012

@kylee07drg – I can tell you from firsthand experience that it is incredibly frustrating. My doctor tested my thyroid function when I complained of being overly tired, and when she found that nothing was wrong with it, she just told me I needed to get more rest.

I tried that, but nothing seemed to help. I didn't feel rested, no matter how much I slept. Exercise was out of the question, because I had no energy.

I came across an article on chronic fatigue syndrome, and I fit the description perfectly. The article said that mental stress could be triggering it, and I knew that my job caused me plenty of that.

After I found a job working from home, my fatigue slowly started to subside. It took months, but I started having energy again. Now, I don't feel so overwhelmed by life, and I can even do moderate exercise.

By kylee07drg — On Feb 07, 2012

I can't imagine having dysautonomia symptoms and being unable to receive treatment! It would be a nightmare for me to have my doctor dismiss something like this.

My best friend's coworker often complains of chronic pain and tiredness, but no one believes anything is wrong with her. Even my friend says that she is a hypochondriac.

I have met the lady before, and she seems very nice but troubled. I can tell that she is hurting physically, and I don't know why no one else can.

Her doctor has refused to give her pain medication, so she just has to live with it. If I were her, I would keep seeking for a doctor who would listen and be compassionate.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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