Autonomic neuropathy is caused by damage to the nerves that help
control the involuntary functions of the body (autonomic nervous system), such as heartbeat and blood pressure, sweating and temperature
regulation, digestion, urination, and some aspects of sexual function.
Heart and circulatory system problems
Diabetic autonomic neuropathy may damage the nerves in the heart
and circulatory system, causing a:
Sudden drop in blood pressure when you sit or
stand up suddenly (orthostatic hypotension).
Rapid heart rate when
you are not exercising (resting tachycardia).
Heart attack that
causes no chest pain (silent heart attack). Without the symptom of chest pain,
a heart attack may be ignored, which can result in severe damage to the heart.
The only signs of a heart attack in a person with
diabetes and neuropathy may be a rising blood sugar
level, weakness that does not go away after eating, increasing shortness of
breath, nausea, and occasionally swelling in the legs.
Sweating and temperature regulation problems
Autonomic neuropathy may affect the nerves that control
Reduced sweating is common, especially in the
hands and feet. It may be hard to recognize when your blood sugar is
dropping because sweating is one of the main symptoms of low blood sugar. You
can develop dry skin that may be more prone to cracking, injury, and infection.
Profuse sweating of the torso, face, or neck may occur at night or while
Changes in the body's ability to regulate temperature may
make you more prone to body chilling (hypothermia) or heat-related illness,
such as heatstroke or heat exhaustion.
Digestive system problems
Damage to the nerves of the stomach and intestines may
Constipation, because of abnormally slow
passage of waste through the intestines. This is the most common digestive
problem in people with diabetes.
Delayed stomach-emptying after a
meal (gastroparesis). This may cause frequent bloating, belching, heartburn,
nausea, or vomiting.
Diarrhea, because of abnormally fast passage
of waste through the intestines. Diarrhea is more common at
Sexual function and urination problems
Nerve damage may cause problems with the bladder and sex organs.
Common problems include:
Trouble knowing when the bladder is full
(diabetic cystopathy) and difficulty emptying the
Frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs). Nerve
damage can disrupt the proper emptying of the bladder, which increases the risk
For men, trouble achieving or maintaining an
erection during intercourse (impotence).
For women, decreased
moisture in the vagina and reduced sensation of the clitoris.
While not usually life-threatening, autonomic neuropathy can be
disabling. There are effective treatments for some of the problems caused by
diabetic autonomic neuropathy.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.