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What is Dysautonomia? A Brief Introduction

BY  黃冠維, PT

The term "dysautonomia" was originally common in ultra-high stress Japan; it is often considered as "modern lifestyle illness." In recent years, dysautonomia has also been common in Taiwan as the average citizen’s stress levels continue to rise. Dysautonomia may cause dizziness, headaches, sweating, chest discomfort, nausea, muscle tightness, neck and shoulder soreness, difficult breathing, throat blockage, hand tremors or numbness, constipation, diarrhea, insomnia, frequent urination… the list goes on and on!

Why are we talking about dysautonomia today? This blog began as a solution for exercise injuries and all kinds of chronic pain, such as shoulder and back pain. We understand that not all pain arises from musculoskeletal issues; sometimes, nervous system or psychological factors may play a role, and these factors are often related to your lifestyle.

So What is Dysautonomia? 

Your body is controlled by your nervous system, and your nervous system acts like the wires, chips, and memory card in your phone or computer, sending signals and performing calculations. Your nervous system is the boss of your body, controlling everything from organs to individual cells.  The nervous system can be divided into two parts: the central nerves and peripheral nerves.

Central nerves: Includes the brain (cranial nerves) and the spine (spinal nerves)

Peripheral nerves: Divided into somatic nerves (sensory and motor nerves) and autonomic nerves

Although sensory and motor nerves are frequently mentioned, they make up only 10% of peripheral nerves, while the remaining 90%, made up of autonomic nerves, are often overlooked.

What Do Autonomic Nerves Do? 

Autonomic nerves are divided into sympathetic nerves, parasympathetic nerves, and enteric nerves, but more people have probably heard more about the first two. Sympathetic nerves originate in the brain stem, and are divided by the spine into peripheral nerves. Sympathetic nerves excite the body, maintain alertness, increase focus, and prepare the body to react to environmental stressors. Parasympathetic nerves originate directly from the brain stem and don't pass through the spine. Parasympathetic nerves allow the body to relax, rest, conserve energy, promote digestion, and help you sleep. Sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves serve opposite functions, allowing the body to switch between different conditions and maintain balance. Enteric nerves control the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, gallbladder, and other organs. 

What Are the Effects of Dysautonomia? 

The previous sections taught us that autonomic nerves are located throughout the body and are closely related to tension and relaxation. Thus, it is only to be expected that the symptoms associated with dysautonomia are countless.

Common Problems Caused by Autonomic Nerve Dysfunction Include: 

Dizziness, head heaviness, migraines, concentration difficulties, reduced capacity for thinking and understanding, emotional instability, irritability, nervousness, anxiety, panic disorder, depression, negative thinking, weakness and fatigue, difficulty falling asleep, light sleep, poor sleep quality, snoring, stroke aftereffects, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases, shaking hands (tremors), facial nerve numbness, dry eye, eye fatigue, worsening farsightedness, chronic rhinitis, allergic rhinitis, chronic laryngitis, chronic cough, dry throat or feeling of blockage, susceptibility to colds, vertigo, tinnitus, heart palpitations, chest discomfort, difficulty breathing, high blood pressure, orthostatic hypotension, burping, abdominal distension, bloating, flatulence, soft stool, diarrhea, heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, difficulty swallowing, frequent urination, nocturia, Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH), sexual dysfunction, loss of coordination, night sweats, hyperhidrosis, red face, and more. 

In short, the symptoms are virtually endless, and they include a number of common modern illnesses. Even more interestingly, unlike illnesses such as colds, autonomic nerve symptoms are different for each person. Now you might be wondering, "How do doctors determine if the problem is being caused by dysautonomia or not?" For example, if a person has diarrhea, we generally begin by examining their gastrointestinal tract, because we first suspect that the issue is there. If we cannot find the cause in the gastrointestinal tract, that's when we begin to take a look at autonomic nerves. The reasoning is simple: when performing an examination, doctors usually start from issues that are common and easy to clarify before moving on to check for more complicated or less probable causes.  

How Do You Examine Autonomic Nerves? 

In general, we use the process of elimination in addition to objective testing in order to make a diagnosis, because the symptoms of dysautonomia are so widely varied. Currently, a common autonomic nerve testing method is called Heart Rate Variability. As its name suggests, this test uses the rate of change in a person’s heart rate to detect sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve activity.

Common Causes of Dysautonomia 

Truly identifying the cause of a problem in something as complex as the nervous system is difficult, but common factors include:

1. Natural predisposition

2. Exogenous stress: environmental, psychological, physiological

3. Endogenous stress: related to your personality

4. Poor lifestyle habits

5. Abnormal hormone secretion

6. Age: Parasympathetic nerves rapidly degenerate and may cause dysautonomia for men around the age of 30 and women around the age of 40.

How Can I Reverse Dysautonomia? 

1. Establish a regular work-rest routine to help with insomnia and have better quality sleep

2. Commit to good exercise habits and get more sun exposure.

3. Eat a balanced diet; don’t be picky!

4. Those prone to stress and tension must learn how to release stress and relax. 

About Your Health 

Dysautonomia is actually not a disease; think of it more like a warning being sent out by the body signifying suboptimal health. Suboptimal health means that the body is not completely healthy, but has also not yet reached the point of illness. Many people are caught in this gray area.

Everyday life in today's high-stress society can be overwhelming, and we suggest readers maintain a regular routine, find stress relief methods, and exercise regularly. Doing this can move you further right on the health spectrum, and even if unexpected illness strikes, your body will be able to recover faster. Remember, a tough workout today is an investment in your future health. If you suspect that there is a problem with your autonomic nerves, please turn to family medicine doctors, rehabilitative doctors, mental health professionals, Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, psychological counselors, and a small number of physical therapists for some help.

Retrieved from: 好痛痛 - 復健科、骨科、物理治療醫療資訊

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