Dysautonomia is a condition that affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS), a part of our peripheral nervous system. The ANS regulates the involuntary functions of many of our internal organs, such as the heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, urination, pupillary response, and sexual arousal. This system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SANS), which is in charge of the fight or flight response (among other things), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PANS), which controls the opposite bodily responses. For instance, imagine that your life is threatened by a wild animal: You should run, right? As a response, the SANS is going to prevail over the PANS to increase your heart rate and respiratory rate (among other changes). It does this, to redirect oxygenated blood to your muscles for the purpose of running or fighting, if necessary. Now, imagine that there is a dysfunction in these systems, and your heartbeat increases while you are watching TV or merely when you stand up. Simply put, this is an example of what patients with dysautonomia can experience.
There are many types of dysautonomias, but they all share a common issue: inadequate functioning of the ANS. Dysautonomias consist of a failure of the components of the autonomic nervous system or an exacerbation of their functions (overactive ANS). Furthermore, some arise as primary disorders (not associated with or caused by a previous disease), while others are secondary to certain diseases. Finally, symptoms of dysautonomias can be localized or generalized, and they can be acute or chronic.
Some examples of primary dysautonomias include neurocardiogenic syncope (NCS), postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), familial dysautonomia (FD), Multiple system atrophy (MSA), and Pure autonomic failure. Some causes of secondary dysautonomias include diabetes, alcoholism, and Parkinson’s disease. In this article, you will find some of the most common symptoms of dysautonomias.
Symptom #1: Palpitations
When at rest, the heart beats at a rate proportional to the body’s demand for blood supply. This is referred to as the basal heart rate. When there is increased demand for oxygen and nutrients, for example, due to exertion or postural changes, the body responds appropriately to meet the increased demand. There is, therefore, a steady, well-coordinated adjustment in the functioning of the heart and the blood vessel tone when the autonomic nervous system is working properly.
When the ability to regulate the heart rate or blood pressure accordingly is compromised, as, in dysautonomia, fast or slow heart rates may occur. This can compromise the ability of the body to supply enough blood to all its tissues and organs. As a consequence of an increased heart rate, the patient may experience heart palpitations: the sensation of an uncomfortable racing heartbeat or a “flopping” in the chest.
In a common type of primary dysautonomia, known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), signs and symptoms, including tachycardia and palpitations, usually develop when the patient stands up from a reclining position.