What Is Autonomic Neuropathy?

Autonomic neuropathy is a group of conditions caused by damage to your nerves. It can lead to many different symptoms, like dizziness, night sweats, and constipation.

Those nerves are part of your autonomic nervous system. They control many different body functions, including:

Damage to those nerves affects the signals between your brain and your organs. Certain diseases and treatments related to your nerves can cause it -- diabetes is the most common one. Other possibilities include:

Symptoms

These will depend on where the damaged nerves are and which organs are involved. They can include:

Digestive symptoms:

  • Loose bowel movements (diarrhea)
  • Hard bowel movements (constipation)
  • Feeling less hungry or full after only a few bites of food
  • Nausea
  • Throwing up undigested food
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Heartburn

Heart and blood vessel symptoms:

  • Dizziness or fainting when you stand up
  • Very fast heart rate, especially when you exercise

Urinary symptoms:

  • Trouble starting to pee or lack of control over peeing
  • A hard time emptying your bladder
  • Urinary tract infections

Body temperature symptoms:

Sexual symptoms:

Vision symptoms:

  • Trouble adjusting between a bright room and a dark one

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam. She also might recommend blood tests to check for:

  • Diabetes
  • Sjogren's syndrome and other autoimmune diseases
  • Infections like HIV or Lyme disease

Other tests you might have include:

  • Tilt-table test. You’ll lie on a table, and it will tilt to raise part of your body as if you were standing. Your doctor will watch your blood pressure and heart rate as your position changes.
  • Quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test. This uses a small electrical current to see how your sweat glands are working.
  • Urodynamic tests. These check how well your bladder stores and releases urine.
  • Ultrasound. This uses high-frequency sound waves to make images of your bladder so your doctor can get a better look at what’s happening.
  • X-rays.

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Treatment

Your doctor mainly will treat the disease that caused your nerve damage. For example, if you have diabetes, you'll need to control your blood sugar with diet, exercise, and possibly medicine. For autoimmune diseases, like Sjogren's syndrome, you'll get medicine to control your immune system and bring down inflammation in your body.

Your doctor also might recommend other things to ease specific symptoms.

To treat digestive symptoms:

  • Change your diet. Eat smaller meals so you don’t feel too full. Add fluid and fiber to your diet to prevent bloating and constipation.
  • Laxatives can help with constipation, and other medicines can treat diarrhea and belly pain.
  • Sleep with the head of your bed raised to prevent heartburn.

To treat urinary symptoms:

  • Drink fluids and empty your bladder at set times during the day. This can help your bladder hold more fluid.
  • Oxybutynin (Ditropan XL) and tolterodine (Detrol) stop your bladder muscle from squeezing too often. Bethanechol helps you empty your bladder all the way.
  • Use a catheter. This tube goes into your bladder to help empty it.

To treat sweating problems:

To treat heart and blood pressure symptoms:

  • Take a medicine that raises your blood pressure, such as fludrocortisone or midodrine and pyridostigmine (Mestinon).
  • Take medicine to control your heart rate. Beta-blockers can help bring your heart back into a normal rhythm.
  • Stand up slowly so you don't get dizzy.
  • Get extra salt and fluid in your diet to help raise your blood pressure. Only do this if your doctor recommends it. In some cases, it can raise your blood pressure too high or cause swelling.

To treat sexual symptoms:

  • Drugs like sildenafil (Revatio, Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), and vardenafil (Levitra, Staxyn) can help men get -- and keep -- an erection.
  • Women can try a water-based lubricant to make sex more comfortable.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on February 23, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Diabetes Association: "Autonomic Neuropathy."

Arthritis Foundation: "Sjogren's Syndrome Treatment."

Cleveland Clinic: "Autonomic Neuropathy or Autonomic Dysfunction (Syncope): Information and Instructions."

Mayo Clinic: "Autonomic neuropathy: Symptoms & causes," "Autonomic Neuropathy: Diagnosis & Treatment."

Medscape: "Autonomic Neuropathy," "Autonomic Neuropathy: Treatment & Management."

Stanford Health Care: "Autonomic Neuropathy."

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