Autonomic Neuropathy

Autonomic neuropathy affects the autonomic nerves, which control the bladder, intestinal tract, and genitals, among other organs.

Paralysis of the bladder is a common symptom of this type of neuropathy. When this happens, the nerves of the bladder no longer respond normally to pressure as the bladder fills with urine. As a result, urine stays in the bladder, leading to urinary tract infections.

Autonomic neuropathy can also cause erectile dysfunction (ED) when it affects the nerves that control erection with sexual arousal. However, sexual desire does not usually decrease.

Diarrhea can occur when the nerves that control the small intestine are damaged. The diarrhea occurs most often at night. Constipation is another common result of damage to nerves in the intestines.

Sometimes, the stomach is affected. It loses the ability to move food through the digestive system, causing vomiting and bloating. This condition, called gastroparesis, can change how fast the body absorbs food. It can make it hard to match insulin doses to food portions.

Scientists do not know the precise cause of autonomic neuropathy and are looking for better treatments for his type of neuropathy.

Symptoms

This type of nerve damage affects the nerves in your body that control your body systems. It affects your digestive system, urinary tract, sex organs, heart and blood vessels, sweat glands, and eyes. Look at the list below and make a note about any symptoms you have. Bring this list to your next office visit.

About my digestive system

  • I get indigestion or heartburn.
  • I get nauseous and I vomit undigested food.
  • It seems like food sits in my stomach instead of being digested.
  • I feel bloated after I eat.
  • My stomach feels full, even after I eat only a small amount.
  • I have diarrhea.
  • I have lost control of my bowels.
  • I get constipated.
  • My blood glucose levels are hard to predict. I never know if I'll have high or low blood glucose after eating.

About my urinary tract

  • I have had bladder control problems, such as urinating very often or not often enough, feeling like I need to urinate when I don't, or leaking urine.
  • I don't feel the need to urinate, even when my bladder is full.
  • I have lost control of my bladder.
  • I have frequent bladder infections.

About my sex organs

  • (For men) When I have sex, I have trouble getting or keeping an erection.
  • (For women) When I have sex, I have problems with orgasms, feeling aroused, or I have vaginal dryness.

About my heart and blood vessels

  • I get dizzy if I stand up too quickly.
  • I have fainted after getting up or changing my position.
  • I have fainted suddenly for no reason.
  • At rest, my heart beats too fast.
  • I had a heart attack but I didn't have the typical warning signs such as chest pain.

About my body's warning system for low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia)

  • I used to get nervous and shaky when my blood glucose was getting too low, but I no longer have those warning signals.

About my sweat glands

  • I sweat a lot, especially at night or while I'm eating.
  • I no longer sweat, even when I'm too hot.
  • The skin on my feet is very dry.

About my eyes

  • It's hard for my eyes to adjust when I go from a dark place into a bright place or when driving at night.

Diagnosis

To diagnose this kind of nerve damage, you will need a physical exam and special tests as well. For example, an ultrasound test uses sound waves to check on your bladder. Stomach problems can be found using x-rays and other tests. Reporting your symptoms plays a big part in making a diagnosis.

Treatment

There are a number of treatments for damage to nerves that control body systems. For example, a dietitian can help you plan meals if you have nausea or feel full after eating a small amount. Some medications can speed digestion and reduce diarrhea. Problems with erections can be treated with medications or devices.

  • Last Reviewed: June 7, 2013
  • Last Edited: December 5, 2013

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