Autonomic neuropathy refers to damage to the nerves controlling involuntary functions of the body. Over time, elevated blood glucose and fats – like triglycerides – in the blood due to diabetes can damage the nerves and small blood vessels nourishing the nerve, which ultimately leads to autonomic neuropathy.
Damage to the nerves interferes with the messages exchanged between your brain and other organs or regions of the autonomic nervous system, for example – the blood vessels, sweat glands, and the heart.
How does Autonomic Neuropathy affect you?
Autonomic neuropathy can affect more than one organ and cause an array of symptoms. Its early signs include faintness or dizziness when standing or rising, and feeling nauseated or vomiting when eating. You may also experience changes or disturbances in bowel movement, sexual functioning or bladder control.
Other symptoms of Autonomic neuropathy may depend on which of your body functions are affected. The condition usually affects the following organs and systems in your body –
Blood Pressure and Heart Rate
If the nerves controlling your blood pressure and heart rate are damaged, it could lead these nerves to respond more slowly to stress, sleep, physical activity, breathing patterns, and change in your body posture. You may have a rapid or irregular heartbeat, or feel lightheaded after exercising. Nerve damage may also prevent you from feeling pain in the chest when you are having a heart attack.
If Autonomic neuropathy affects your digestive system, you may experience symptoms, such as bloating or fullness, vomiting and nausea, and difficulty swallowing. The condition can also lead to gastroparesis – a disorder, which stops or slows the motion of food to the small intestine from the stomach. It can keep your body from absorbing glucose and utilizing insulin properly - these problems can make it harder for you to manage blood glucose.
If the nerves of your bladder are damaged, it can make it hard for you to understand when you need to urinate and when your bladder is empty. As you hold on to urine for too long, you stand a chance to contract bladder infections and urinary incontinence.
Damage to the nerves of the sex organs in men can prevent the penis from getting firm during intercourse – a condition commonly known as erectile dysfunction. In women, Autonomic neuropathy may prevent the vagina from getting wet during sex. You might have less sensation around the vagina, or have trouble achieving orgasm.
Autonomic neuropathy affecting the eyes (nerves in the pupil) can cause you to respond slowly to environmental changes, like in the dark or the light. For example - your eyes may take longer to adjust when you enter a dark room.
Autonomic neuropathy is very common in diabetes patients and usually is treated using medications. However, the condition can be well managed and prevented with healthy lifestyle changes that help keep your blood sugar levels in check.