The master of the brain has many agents reporting from a myriad of stations across all the organ systems. Maybe the master of the brain could be the frontal lobe where all of our more exalted functions, our thoughts, primary reside. However, the frontal lobe would have trouble usurping energy, and even emotional priority, if the lower parts of the brain and its agents are under duress. Yes, hypothalamus, you and your autonomic nervous system peripheral agents are the foundation of the mighty human cognitive capacity. When you are compromised, other functions just are not as important.
Dysautonomia. Autonomic dysfunction. Autonomic neuropathy. Call it what you like.
Dysautonomia International is the backbone of Dysautonomia Awareness Month (and unfortunately chose October, and thus the shadow of Breast Cancer Awareness month—but then again there are only twelve months and far more than twelve medical conditions). All month on Facebook they posted Fact of the Day, which are the images in this post.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates every function in your body that you cannot consciously control: heart rate, blood pressure, vein dilation in response to posture and activity (as I mentioned in a previous post about a form of dysautonomia, POTS), digestion rate, release of digestive enzymes, filtration activity in the kidneys, pupil dilation, sweating, temperature regulation and more.
ANS signals from various organs route to the medulla oblongata, part of the brainstem. The hypothalamus, a region of the brain close to the brainstem, “decides” what to do with the information. It tells the endocrine system what to do. A lack of blood flood (due to autonomic dysfunction) can impede your ability to think, so in a way the ANS gives the “higher” parts of the brain permission to do what it wants.
Dysautonomia International highlighted some categorized forms of autonomic medical conditions.
Not included in Dysautonomia’s posts this month:
- Orthostatic hypotension (OH): when you sit or stand up your blood pressure drops and often does not recover for several minutes. You can lose your vision, feel extremely lightheaded, and lose coordination during this time.
- Multiple system atrophy (MSA): progressive disease, leaving afflicted bedridden within two years of onset and fatal within ten years. Symptoms span autonomic issues and those of Parkinson’s disease.
- Familial dysautonomia (FD): another general dysautonomia, but affects children and severe enough for death and limited to Ashkenazi Jewish families.
Often to be diagnosed and receive care for these conditions, a patient must travel to a major research hospital with an autonomic neurology unit, such as Mayo and Cleveland Clinics and Vanderbilt University. These facilities lay in the central-eastern part of the United States (Minnesota, Ohio and Tennessee, respectively), and thus lie a fair distance from many. Dysautonomia is about as well covered in medical school as nutrition, which says a lot. Many neurologists are not comfortable with diagnosing or treating it due to their lack of knowledge. Perhaps some physicians hope the patient’s troubles are easy to treat. Psychological disorders are better understood, treatment more accessible, and symptoms as vague and unquantifiable. About 60 percent of patients receive an anxiety misdiagnosis. Accurate diagnoses average nearly six years after falling ill.
Nerves web the entire body. Damage can occur anywhere and cause either limited dysautonomia, such as damage to the vagus nerve during surgery can lead to gastroparesis—a painful, often debilitating condition where the stomach does not receive signals to contract the stomach walls to ground eaten food or to open the pyloric sphincter and allow food to pass into the intestine. Other damage can affect the entire ANS.
In addition, the reasons for damage are almost as varied as there are patients.
An estimated 70 million, or almost 1 percent of the world’s human population, have some form of dysautonomia. Causes can be common or rare, and mild or debilitating. For perspective:
- 5 million are diabetic (25 percent of all dysautonomia cases).
- 7 million have a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
- 133,000 survivors of mitochondrial diseases—survivors, considering mitochondrial diseases kill more kids than cancer.
Dysautonomias are considered “invisible illnesses,” and often people that are young and look fit can have debilitating symptoms. Some even rely on wheelchairs to get around grocery stores and other public areas. You don’t always know who they are–don’t judge!
If you didn’t see it before, you can get more information at Dysautonomia International’s website.