The autonomic nervous system regulates such important functions as blood pressure (BP), heart rate, thermoregulation, respiration, gastrointestinal, bladder, and sexual function. Autonomic dysfunction can occur as a result of many diseases that affect autonomic pathways. The clinician’s role is to seek out symptoms of dysautonomia, but it is then necessary to determine if these symptoms are really due to involvement of autonomic systems. In the past, methods to evaluate autonomic function has been unavailable or too invasive. Recent advances in technology and the development/selection of autonomic function tests have resulted in the availability of quantitative, non-invasive, and reproducible tests and have made autonomic function testing accessible to the clinician. The focus of this review is to briefly describe a number of tests that are available to the clinician and how they might help in clinical situations.
Modern autonomic function tests can non-invasively evaluate the severity and distribution of autonomic failure. They have sufficient sensitivity to detect even subclinical dysautonomia. Standard laboratory testing evaluates cardiovagal, sudomotor and adrenergic autonomic functions. Cardiovagal function is typically evaluated by testing heart rate response to deep breathing at a defined rate and to the Valsalva maneuver. Sudomotor function can be evaluated with the quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test and the thermoregulatory sweat test. Adrenergic function is evaluated by the blood pressure and heart rate responses to the Valsalva maneuver and to head-up tilt. Tests are useful in defining the presence of autonomic failure, their natural history, and response to treatment. They can also define patterns of dysautonomia that are useful in helping the clinician diagnose certain autonomic conditions. For example, the tests are useful in the diagnosis of the autonomic neuropathies and distal small fiber neuropathy. The autonomic neuropathies (such as those due to diabetes or amyloidosis) are characterized by severe generalized autonomic failure. Distal small fiber neuropathy is characterized by an absence of autonomic failure except for distal sudomotor failure. Selective autonomic failure (which only one system is affected) can be diagnosed by autonomic testing. An example is chronic idiopathic anhidrosis, where only sudomotor function is affected. Among the synucleinopathies, autonomic function tests can distinguish Parkinson’s disease (PD) from multiple system atrophy (MSA). There is a gradation of autonomic failure. PD is characterized by mild autonomic failure and a length-dependent pattern of sudomotor involvement. MSA and pure autonomic failure have severe generalized autonomic failure while DLB is intermediate.
Orthostatic hypotension is defined as a decrease in systolic blood pressure of 20 mm Hg or a decrease in diastolic blood pressure of 10 mm Hg within three minutes of standing when compared with blood pressure from the sitting or supine position. It results from an inadequate physiologic response to postural changes in blood pressure. Orthostatic hypotension may be acute or chronic, as well as symptomatic or asymptomatic. Common symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, blurred vision, weakness, fatigue, nausea, palpitations, and headache. Less common symptoms include syncope, dyspnea, chest pain, and neck and shoulder pain. Causes include dehydration or blood loss; disorders of the neurologic, cardiovascular, or endocrine systems; and several classes of medications. Evaluation of suspected orthostatic hypotension begins by identifying reversible causes and underlying associated medical conditions. Head-up tilt-table testing can aid in confirming a diagnosis of suspected orthostatic hypotension when standard orthostatic vital signs are nondiagnostic; it also can aid in assessing treatment response in patients with an autonomic disorder. Goals of treatment involve improving hypotension without excessive supine hypertension, relieving orthostatic symptoms, and improving standing time. Treatment includes correcting reversible causes and discontinuing responsible medications, when possible. Nonpharmacologic treatment should be offered to all patients. For patients who do not respond adequately to nonpharmacologic treatment, fludrocortisone, midodrine, and pyridostigmine are pharmacologic therapies proven to be beneficial.
In preparation for the tests, do not smoke or drink coffee, tea, or other caffeinated beverages for at least four hours preceding the test. If possible, avoid taking any medications that dry out your eyes or mouth, such as cold and allergy medications or antidepressants, for 24 hours before your visit.
Autonomic function tests come in three parts: