Autonomic neuropathy develops as a complication of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, etc. In this condition, nerves of ANS are damaged. ANS or autonomic nervous system is responsible to control various functions of the body such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and many more. If it is affected, it may cause mild to severe symptoms in the body. It is a gradual process. It can affect any organ or group of organs. It can affect heart leading to serious effects on health.
Is Autonomic Neuropathy Life-Threatening & Does It Affect The Heart?
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls basic functions that involve heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature, digestion, and sensation. ANS establishes a connection between the brain and internal organs. It controls the functions of the heart, liver, skin, sweat glands, and some of the internal muscles of your eye.
ANS is of two types, the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (SANS) and parasympathetic autonomic nervous system (PANS). Nearly most organs possess both types. (1)
The function of SANS is to stimulate the organs. For instance, in the heart, it elevates heart rate and blood pressure. The function of PANS is to reduce bodily processes. In the heart, it lowers down the heart rate and blood pressure. (1)
In cases of emergency, SANS triggers emergency responses that involve flight or fight responses. Flight and fight responses are necessary to deal with stressful situations. PANS help to reserve the energy and store it in the tissues to perform normal functions. (1)
Autonomic neuropathy is a group of symptoms that develop in the autonomic nervous system. It can happen in any person irrespective of age or sex. Most of the cases of autonomic neuropathy are caused by diabetes mellitus. (1)
In autonomic neuropathy, the functions of the SANS and PANS are impaired. In this condition, the nerves of ANS are damaged. It is known as autonomic neuropathy or dysautonomia. This process is slow in progression. It may range from mild to life-threatening. It involves a part of ANS or the entire ANS. But, when it affects the nerves supplying the heart, then it may cause fatal results. (1)
Some of the symptoms of autonomic neuropathy are temporary but some symptoms get worse with time. When autonomic dysfunction involves heart, it may become life-threatening. This condition of the heart is also called cardiac autonomic neuropathy (CAN). It affects vital functions of the body such as breathing, heart rates, and blood pressure. (3)
When the nerves that control the heart rate and blood pressure are affected, then the functions of these nerves become slow in response to any change in the position of the body, stress, sleep, physical activities and breathing patterns. These damaged nerves may lead to an increased heart rate. The heart rate may remain high even during rest. It then lowers down blood pressure while standing up resulting in postural hypotension. It may also lead to a heart attack without pain or symptoms called silent myocardial infarction. (2)
It may cause cardiac dysrhythmias, cardiac arrest, and even sudden cardiac death. Frequent fluctuations in blood pressure increase the risk of cerebral and cardiac ischemia (a condition in which the blood supply to the vital organs is reduced). However, the course of this condition is slow and gradual. In the case of diabetes mellitus, the outlook of the autonomic neuropathy improves when diabetes is controlled well. However, there is no cure known for this. (4)
Autonomic neuropathy can be mild or severe. It may affect a single part of the autonomic nervous system or complete autonomic nervous system. When it affects the heart, it can increase the heart rate and reduce blood pressure inappropriately in response to various situations. It can result in serious consequences that may lead to sudden death.
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