Healthy Living

What is Dysautonomia?

What is Dysautonomia?
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“Dysautonomia is a general term used to describe a breakdown, or failure of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls much of your involuntary functions.”

Americans, and therefore the rest of the western world, don’t believe in illnesses they can’t explain or that can’t be cured. And if it is one of the many “Invisible Illnesses” than you can be sure it is one that is held suspect. If you have general malaise, or if you have symptoms reminiscent of a bedridden Victorian woman, and nothing else can be found, then clearly it is all in your head.

Those who suffer from dysautonomia know it’s not in their heads, but they have a hard time convincing the doctors. Dysautonomia is a little-known disease of the central nervous system. No one is sure of exactly what causes it or how to treat it, but it may be the root cause of disorders and problems like:

  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
  • chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • fibromyalgia
  • panic attacks
  • anxiety
  • fainting
  • chronic headaches with no other perceived cause

“Over one million Americans are impacted with a primary autonomic system disorder. The more common forms of these conditions include ,Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) / Orthostatic Intolerance (OI), Neurocardiogenic Syncope (NCS), Pure Autonomic Failure (PAF) and Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA).”

You can liken dysautonomia to a wiring problem: somewhere in the nervous system, something is short-circuiting or behaving erratically. In a computer, a problem like this is irritatingly hard to locate. In a human, it’s nearly impossible.

Symptoms of Dysautonomia:

People presenting to the doctor with an eventual diagnosis of dysautonomia typically complain of vague symptoms, and perhaps one overriding problem: headaches, extreme fatigue, dizziness, a feeling of malaise, low or erratic blood pressure, vague aches and pains, sweating, blurred vision, trouble exercising due to no stamina, numbness, anxiety, and often depression. These symptoms cluster, resulting in the different diagnoses listed above.

If a patient has vague symptoms that don’t fit under any of the above problems, and especially if treatment does not help them and there is no other medical evidence to show where these issues may have risen from, most family doctors are likely to write it off as a psychological illness. It’s not. It can also be a life-threatening disease at any age, causing sudden cardiac or pulmonary arrest, and even if your life is not threatened, dysautonomia severely impacts your quality of life.

How Is Dysautonomia Caused?

No one is certain where dysautonomia comes from, only that it is a disorder of the central nervous system. A variety of things seem to trigger it: injury to the head or chest (including things like breast surgery), environmental toxins, and flu and other viral diseases. Because of the toxin issue, it is likely that the ill-defined Gulf War syndrome is also a disease that can be grouped under dysautonomia. No one is certain why other individuals exposed to the same hazards do not get dysautonomia, but it does seem to run in families.

Treating Dysautonomia

There’s a great deal of research going on right now on how to treat dysautonomia. Currently, there is no certain single treatment – not surprising, as it’s a nervous system disorder. Instead, researchers have a host of treatments, starting with regular physical exercise, which seems to stabilize the problems and does better than anything at treating the root cause. Biofeedback techniques are being tried to address the panic and other mental effects.

Drugs available today are of limited benefit, and are used primarily to treat symptoms: Xanax for panic and anxiety, Fludrocortisone to treat sudden drops in blood pressure that cause fainting, NSAIDs like Advil to treat aches and pains. Antidepressants have shown some benefit in certain sufferers, as they seem to help re-balance the nervous system. Other than these, there isn’t much that can be done, though pharmaceutical companies are working hard on new treatments.

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