The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates physiologic processes. Regulation occurs without conscious control, ie, autonomously. The 2 major divisions are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
Disorders of the ANS cause autonomic insufficiency or failure and can affect any system of the body.
The ANS receives input from parts of the CNS that process and integrate stimuli from the body and external environment. These parts include the hypothalamus, nucleus of the solitary tract, reticular formation, amygdala, hippocampus, and olfactory cortex.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems each consist of 2 sets of nerve bodies: one set (called preganglionic) in the CNS, with connections to another set in ganglia outside the CNS. Efferent fibers from the ganglia (postganglionic fibers) lead to effector organs (see Fig. 1: The autonomic nervous system.).
The preganglionic cell bodies of the sympathetic system are located in the intermediolateral horn of the spinal cord between T1 and L2 or L3. The sympathetic ganglia are adjacent to the spine and consist of the vertebral (sympathetic chain) and prevertebral ganglia, including the superior cervical, celiac, superior mesenteric, inferior mesenteric, and aorticorenal ganglia. Long fibers run from these ganglia to effector organs, including the smooth muscle of blood vessels, viscera, lungs, scalp (piloerector muscles), and pupils; the heart; and glands (sweat, salivary, and digestive).
The preganglionic cell bodies of the parasympathetic system are located in the brain stem and sacral portion of the spinal cord. Preganglionic fibers exit the brain stem with the 3rd, 7th, 9th, and 10th (vagus) cranial nerves and exit the spinal cord at S2 and S3; the vagus nerve contains about 75% of all parasympathetic fibers. Parasympathetic ganglia (eg, ciliary, sphenopalatine, otic, pelvic, and vagal ganglia) are located within the effector organs, and postganglionic fibers are only 1 or 2 mm long. Thus, the parasympathetic system can produce specific, localized responses in effector organs, such as blood vessels of the head, neck, and thoracoabdominal viscera; lacrimal and salivary glands; smooth muscle of glands and viscera (eg, liver, spleen, colon, kidneys, bladder, genitals); and ocular muscles.
The ANS controls BP, heart rate, body temperature, weight, digestion, metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, sweating, urination, defecation, sexual response, and other processes. Many organs are controlled primarily by either the sympathetic or parasympathetic system, although they may receive input from both; occasionally, functions are reciprocal (eg, sympathetic input increases heart rate; parasympathetic decreases it).
The sympathetic nervous system is catabolic; it activates fight-or-flight responses. The parasympathetic nervous system is anabolic; it conserves and restores (see Table 1: Divisions of the Autonomic Nervous System).
|Divisions of the Autonomic Nervous System
Increases the following:
Causes sweaty palms
Decreases less immediately life-preserving functions (eg, digestion)
Stimulates GI secretions and motility (including evacuation)
Slows heart rate
Two major neurotransmitters in the ANS are
There are different subtypes of adrenergic receptors (see Norepinephrine) and cholinergic receptors (see Acetylcholine), which vary by location.
Disorders causing autonomic insufficiency or failure can originate in the peripheral or central nervous system and may be primary or secondary to other disorders.
The most common causes of autonomic insufficiency are
Other causes include
Symptoms suggesting autonomic insufficiency include
Other possible symptoms include dry eyes and dry mouth, but they are less specific.
Important parts of the examination include the following:
If patients have symptoms and signs suggesting autonomic insufficiency, sudomotor, cardiovagal, and adrenergic testing is usually done to help determine severity and distribution of the insufficiency.
Sudomotor testing includes the following:
Cardiovagal testing evaluates heart rate response (via ECG rhythm strip) to deep breathing and to the Valsalva maneuver. If the ANS is intact, heart rate varies with these maneuvers; normal responses to deep breathing and the Valsalva ratio vary by age.
Adrenergic testing evaluates response of beat-to-beat BP to the following:
With the head-up tilt test and Valsalva maneuvers, the pattern of responses is an index of adrenergic function.
Plasma norepinephrine levels can be measured with patients supine and then after they stand for > 5 min. Normally, levels increase after standing. If patients have autonomic insufficiency, levels may not increase with standing and may be low in the supine position, particularly in postganglionic disorders (eg, autonomic neuropathy, pure autonomic failure).
Last full review/revision April 2013 by Phillip Low, MD
Content last modified August 2013