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Signs of Autonomic Dysreflexia & How to Treat Them

It’s important to be alert for signs of autonomic dysreflexia because it can be life-threatening if not treated properly.

During autonomic dysreflexia, your autonomic nervous system overreacts when stimulated, which results in a sudden spike in blood pressure.

This article will give you a comprehensive overview of autonomic dysreflexia causes, signs, and treatments.

Autonomic Dysreflexia and Spinal Cord Injury

Autonomic dysreflexia is a common side effect of spinal cord injury and occurs when there’s some sort of irritation or pain stimulus below the lesion.

However, not all spinal cord injury patients experience autonomic dysreflexia. It typically occurs in those with a T6 level of injury or higher.

Although most common in spinal cord injury patients, autonomic dysreflexia can also occur in those with other central nervous system injuries like multiple sclerosis.

Normally, a stimulus can travel up the spinal cord to the brain with no problem. It triggers an autonomic reflex that signals your blood vessels to constrict, which forces your blood pressure to rise. When the brain receives the stimulus, it sends directions back down the spinal cord for the blood vessels to relax.

With spinal cord injury, your brain can sense the increase in blood pressure, but the signal to slow your heart rate to decrease blood pressure can’t get past the site of injury.

Therefore, the blood vessels below the spinal cord injury continue to tighten up and increase blood pressure. This can be a serious threat and should be dealt with right away. Failure to do so can result in seizures, stroke, or death.

Autonomic Dysreflexia Causes

pain stimulus autonomic dysreflexia cause

Pretty much any sort of stimulus that bothers your body can cause autonomic dysreflexia.

Those with complete spinal cord injuries are more likely to experience autonomic dysreflexia than those with incomplete spinal cord injuries.

This is because some brain signals may still be able to get through the injury site, allowing the blood vessels to relax. Also, incomplete spinal cord injury patients are more likely to feel when there’s pressure being applied to areas below their injuries.

It’s not yet understood why some people experience autonomic dysreflexia more often than others, but it’s important for all spinal cord injury patients to be aware of what can prompt your nervous system to overreact like this.

Common autonomic dysreflexia causes are:

  • Full bladder
  • Constipation
  • Skin irritation: burns, cuts, bruises, tight clothing, etc.
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Any sort of pressure on the body
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Sexual activity

Signs of Autonomic Dysreflexia

one of the most recognizable signs of autonomic dysreflexia is hypertension (a spike in blood pressure)

Everyone’s going to experience signs of autonomic dysreflexia a little differently. Some may only experience 1 or 2 of the signs while others might experience a handful of symptoms.

Signs of autonomic dysreflexia can also vary. They can be extreme or subtle depending on the individual.

Be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

  • Sudden rise in systolic (resting) blood pressure
  • Sweating above level of injury
  • Flushed or blotchy skin above level of injury
  • Severe Headaches
  • Anxiety or feelings of a panic attack
  • Blurry vision
  • Goosebumps
  • Tightness or pressure in the chest
  • Stuffy nose

Treatment for Autonomic Dysreflexia

Woman looking up autonomic dysreflexia causes

The good thing about autonomic dysreflexia is that for the most part, you can prevent and treat it on your own.

You just have to be aware of what triggers the reactions and stay on top of avoiding them.

If you notice a sudden rise in blood pressure or any of the other signs of autonomic dysreflexia mentioned above, make sure you sit upright, lower your legs, and keep your head raised. This will help lower blood pressure.

Next, you should try to identify the problem. Here are a couple of things you can do to treat autonomic dysreflexia:

  • Be mindful of your bladder and bowel patterns and make sure to empty them often
    • To avoid constipation, make sure you include more fiber into your diet. Fiber can be found in fruits and vegetables and will help add bulk to your stool, making digestion easier.
    • Check for clogs or kinks in your catheter to ensure bladder relief.
  • Try to wear loose clothes that don’t constrict
    • Make sure that your clothes don’t bunch up when you sit or lay down.
    • Check for hard or sharp objects like buttons and zippers that may rub against your skin.
    • Loosen or avoid any garments that may be too tight like belts, bras, stockings, or jewelry.
  • Inspect your skin daily for pressure sores, bruises, or any other signs of irritation
  • Avoid extreme temperatures
  • Lidocaine gel/ Nitroglycerin paste
    • If none of the treatments above seem to be stabilizing your blood pressure, resort to lidocaine gel or nitroglycerin paste. These are topical medications that can help slow down hypertension and treat irregular heartbeats.

After taking the necessary actions to treat your symptoms, check your blood pressure every 5-10 minutes to ensure it stays stable.

If the treatments don’t work or symptoms get worse, seek medical attention right away.

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