The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls automatic body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, bowel, bladder and sexual function. 
Autonomic dysfunction occurs when the nerves of the ANS are damaged. This can happen with diseases of the peripheral nervous system as well as diseases of the central nervous system. Diabetes and Parkinson’s disease are two examples of chronic conditions that can lead to autonomic dysfunction.

Overview and Symptoms

Autonomic dysfunction may also occur without an obvious underlying disease, for example:

  • Vasovagal syncope
  • Hyperhidrosis
  • Postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS)
  • Pure autonomic failure

If you have a condition that increases your risk of autonomic dysfunction, your doctor will ask about symptoms and perform a physical exam. If you do not have risk factors associated with autonomic dysfunction, your doctor might suggest autonomic testing. This test measures the functioning of your ANS and its ability to control vital functions such as:

  • Heart rate 
  • Blood pressure 
  • Respiration 
  • Gastro-intestinal 
  • Urogenital function

Autonomic testing also measures heart rate and blood pressure in response to a variety of stimuli, such as deep breathing, active standing and passive, head-up tilting on a tilt-table. In addition, you will be measured for skin responses to deep breathing and mild electrical stimuli. All testing is non-invasive and painless. 


Autonomic dysfunction is treated by addressing underlying causes and symptoms. For example, if the underlying cause is diabetes, then controlling blood sugars will be an important part of your treatment. Other treatments will focus on improving your quality of life and managing specific symptoms through medications and lifestyle change. You and your care team will work together to find the right combination of approaches to give you the best symptom management. In many cases you will also have opportunities to participate in our active research program.

Learn More

The Department of Neurology provides a full range of both inpatient and outpatient neurological services through a variety of subspecialty clinics, including Cognitive Neurology, Epilepsy, Stroke, Neuromuscular Disease, Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders, Neuro-ophthalmology, Neuro-oncology, Neuro-HIV, Neurogenetics, Multiple Sclerosis, and Sleep Disorders.