Neuropathy symptoms are determined by what specific type of nerve has been damaged. Autonomic neuropathy symptoms, though less common, can be the scariest, as they impact bodily functions that we don’t consciously control.
First, the good news: Autonomic symptoms of neuropathy are among the least common.
When it comes to your nervous system, there are many different ways its damage can manifest itself because the nervous system is involved in every single thing our body does and experiences.
When you move your arm, you’ve got your motor nerves to thank. When you can tell how cold it is, or that you’ve burned your hand on a hot stove — your sensory nerves are responsible for relaying that information.
And then you have your autonomic nerves. They’re in charge of just about everything else.
Your Built-In Autopilot System
We do a lot of things without really thinking about them at all. What’s more is that many of those things are those that keep us alive. We don’t consciously control our breathing, nor do we spend our days focused on making sure our hearts are beating steadily. Those things just kind of…happen for us, and we have our autonomic nervous system to thank for that.
These nerves are incredibly important, and they’re working every single day — morning, noon, and night — to make sure that your body stays alive and healthy. Even when you’re fast asleep, your autonomic nerves are hard at work regulating your blood flow, keeping your heart beating, and lungs breathing.
They’re a pretty impressive set of nerves, but they can also have some pretty serious consequences when they begin to break down.
1. Blood Flow Restriction
One of the most important responsibilities of your autonomic nervous system is the regulation of blood flow throughout your body. This goes quite a bit beyond simply making sure that your veins are pumping blood all the time, though that is a very big part of the picture.
The blood vessels throughout your body don’t stay the same size at all times. They’re constantly expanding and contracting so that they can better push blood to whatever specific part of your body needs it most.
A good example of this can be seen when you do something like get up from a seated position. Every time you do this, your autonomic nervous system tells your blood vessels and heart to work together to adjust your blood pressure in response to this sudden change in posture, keeping the blood evenly distributed throughout your body. When this fails to happen, you experience a “head rush,” as a result of insufficient blood getting up to your brain and providing it with the oxygen it needs.
Your body is constantly doing things like this, account for changes in your environment and/or activity level, making sure blood gets to where it needs to be going at all times. When these nerves get damaged, blood flow problems can cause issues ranging from mild to serious.
The inability to maintain blood pressure can lead to poor circulation symptoms like swelling and feelings of heaviness in hands, feet, and legs or uncomfortable temperature fluctuations, such as unusually cold hands and feet. Numbness and tingling are the most commonly reported first signs of poor circulation and are sometimes described as pins and needles.
Because poor circulation depletes tissues of oxygen and nutrients, nerve cells become increasingly damaged. When damage escalates, symptoms escalate. You may begin to notice symptoms to progress, such as:
- Electrical pulses
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
Your blood flow takes care of a lot in your body, so its interruption can have some serious consequences, including peripheral neuropathy progression.
2. Bladder & Digestive Problems
Your body processes a lot of food to keep itself running, and it uses its autonomic nervous system to do so without your conscious thought.
Every single day (and night), your digestive system works to filter nutrients out of the food you consume, separating the waste and passing the rest on to wherever it needs to go.
Autonomic nervous system symptoms can involve problems with your digestive system in many ways. Things can go wrong at any part of the pipeline, and the consequences can be serious, regardless of where they occur.
Weakness in the esophagus muscles can lead to food getting stuck, while nerve failure to the stomach muscles can cause all sorts of digestion issues. Your bowel muscles can also be impacted by autonomic nerve failure, causing them to either over- or under-act.
Bladder function is the domain of your autonomic nerves as well, and issues in this area can lead to more serious problems down the line. If your bladder muscles aren’t emptying your bladder properly, problems like a urinary tract infection may eventually develop. In fact, many bladder-related issues related to autonomic neuropathy are often not discovered until they’ve led to this type of secondary issue.
3. … and It Doesn’t Stop There
Your autonomic nervous system regulates some of the bigger systems in your body like your blood flow, your digestion, and your bowels…but it’s also in charge of a host of tiny things, as well. Everything from your tears to your saliva falls under the purview of your autonomic nervous system, so when it degenerates, the symptoms can manifest themselves in a particularly dizzying number of ways.
- intolerance to exercise
- rapid heart rate
- eye problems, like dry eyes or changes in vision
- body temperature issues, too hot or too cold
- breathing problems
- heaviness in legs
- uncontrolled blood pressure
Thankfully enough, autonomic nerve damage is more rarely seen than its motor and sensory counterparts. The problem with this, however, is that they can just as often be mistaken for other things. Sometimes they’re even tough to notice until they’ve actually caused secondary problems, prompting a trip to the doctor.
In any case, the more you know about the symptoms of autonomic peripheral neuropathy, the more you’ll be able to spot its telltale signs and symptoms.
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