Claire and Cherry Pie

What is Dysautonomia?

Dysautonomia is a rather long and sort of unhelpful umbrella term for a group of conditions that involve dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. See the name kinda makes sense when you look at it that way, but it would be great if it were something easier to say (or spell) so it could be easier to remember.

The Autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling all the things we don’t have to think about like Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, temperature regulation, digestion, pupil dilation etc. All the stuff that is important for keeping the body in what biology types like to call ‘homeostasis’ (or the optimal state of being for the human body).  This natural ability means the body is able to maintain that optimal state by responding appropriately to things that could affect body function such as changes in temperature, gravity, emotions, stress, pain and infection etc.

Think about it like this, the human body and all its organs and systems is like an orchestra and the autonomic nervous system is the conductor; when each section is finely tuned and reading the same part it works perfectly, it sounds fantastic (ok talking more about the theoretical orchestra here unless you happen to have a lovely singing voice or fascinating bowel sounds…) and everything just gels, the resulting piece is beautiful. However, if one section of the orchestra is out of tune or playing the wrong part suddenly everything is off in the overall piece.  This is what happens with Dysautonomia; it’s like the conductor is standing there madly waving their baton but for some reason nobody can see them over their music stands and the signal can’t get through – the heart rate regulating section is playing Flight Of The Bumblebee at a million miles per hour, the blood pressure section is relaxedly playing Moon River and may actually fall asleep in the process, the brain is getting a bit nervous and playing the Imperial March but mostly getting it wrong as oxygen isn’t being supplied sufficiently for optimal brain function – and that’s just covering the most common issues people notice with Dysautonomia.  Sometimes the only way the conductor can get everyone to pay attention is to reset it all completely in the form of a faint and hope the being horizontal will get everyone on the same page and working again.

Nobody has been able to discover the reason why the autonomic nervous system has trouble doing its job, why Dysautonomia occurs in some people but not others, why it affects 75% more women than men, why POTS is the most common type of Dysautonomia, why most people develop it between the ages of 15-25, or precisely what happens in the body when it does. There are several theories but none explain everyone. We are all different with different health histories and we range from those who are able to work to those who are completely bed-bound.  None of the researching and treating doctors have been able to say definitively why and how this happens  – just that it does.

It is not possible to know how many people in Australia suffer from Dysautonomia but it is far from being a rare condition. A recent publication by the heart rhythm society estimate that POTS, the most common type of Dysautonomia, occurs in about 0.2% of a population.  If we apply this statistic to an entire population, say Australia, with a population of 23.12 million that would mean there would be 46,260 people living with POTS in Australia – and that’s just POTS. That does not include other types of Dysautonomia such as Orthostatic Intolerance, Recurrent Vasovagal Syncope, Orthostatic Hypotension, Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia, Multiple System Atrophy and generalised Dysautonomia.  It may not be as common as other conditions but 46,260 people is quite a large number.

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