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The Autonomic Nervous System & Why It Matters

Dysautonomia Awareness Month: October 2015

Somehow, dysautonomia and all the illnesses under its umbrella have continued to be brushed off as a woman’s issue, exaggeration, not a big deal, “just live with it”, “I get dizzy sometimes too, have you tried drinking more water?”, “come on, I bet you’d feel better if you just got up and got out of the house”, or everyone’s favorite, “You don’t look sick, though.” As if every POTsie hasn’t tried slugging back a dozen bottles of gatorade and coconut water per day for weeks on end, as though we somehow prefer lying in bed or using a wheelchair to get around and depending on our friends/families for everything when two years ago we could bike or run as far as we wanted, as if we haven’t all tried to convince ourselves in the beginning of our illnesses that it might just be in our head and gone out to do the thing, only to pass out doing the thing, or before we could do the thing. And what on earth does sick even look like?! No one can answer that question, I’ve found.

I’m putting salt in my coffee as I write this, and I have 32oz of water in a quart sized mason jar lined up behind that which I must drink just so I can take a shower without falling on my face (again). After I get out of the shower, the heat will have made all the blood pool in my stretchy veins in my legs, which will be extremely puffy and swollen and sting like crazy when my feet touch the bath mat. I won’t be able to dry off, most likely, so I’ll wrap up in a towel and cling to the walls on my way to rest in bed for twenty minutes, at which point hopefully I will be dry and slightly recovered. I will still be dizzy, hot-flash-y, have a bright red line across my nose and cheeks, and I will probably feel very nauseous for a few hours, sometimes even the rest of the day, but I will push on, salting yet another cup of coffee, salting my food, chugging water throughout my afternoon and evening, and I will struggle through my physical therapy exercises, I will quite possibly be too weak to pull my own damn covers over my body tonight, and that’s life with a very mild case of POTS. I’m one of the lucky ones, I can count my falls on my fingers instead of by the dozens. I’m lucky because in the morning when the blood pooling is at its worst I can lift my own legs, lean them up against the wall and flex until the blood goes back where it needs to be. I’m lucky that I can take a shower by myself at all, even if it’s kind of miserable. I’m lucky that if I bend over I don’t necessarily land on my head every time. But I know so many wonderful people who are not so lucky. I’m lucky that I’ve had my symptoms my entire life and they haven’t taken the sudden turn for the worst that I’ve seen happen to so many friends. So I do all the things (just less often than I used to) that my autonomic nervous system make so very complicated, and I try my best to only state what my reality is, rather than complaining about it. Life is this way, I cannot change it for myself or my loved ones. All I can do is educate others, soak up as much knowledge as possible, and keep trying my best to reverse my symptoms slowly over time.

Finding Out Fibro

October is Dysautonomia Awareness Month.

Please help us spread the word about malfunction of the autonomic nervous system and the many chronic conditions it can cause. There is no cure for dysautonomia, it is an invisible illness, and from day to day the symptoms swing between severe and less severe, so life with any of these illnesses is a roller-coaster, to say the least.

No one bothered to teach me about the autonomic nervous system. In a perfect world, doctors would explain these things to patients who are experiencing classic symptoms of ANS malfunction, as I am, and they would explain just how involved the ANS is in so many processes throughout the body. Normally, when you are in pain or experiencing stress, your autonomic nervous system ramps up your blood pressure, makes you sweat, and elevates your heart rate. When the pain or stressor is gone, your ANS should quiet…

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Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type: A Genetic Predisposition to the Development of Various Functional Somatic Syndromes | The Pain Relief Foundation

What follows is a truly fascinating look at why so many Ehler-Danlos Syndrome patients (especially Hypermobility Type, also used to be called EDS-III or Type 3), including myself, languish in pain, not taken seriously, waiting for a correct diagnosis. I accurately fit every requirement for EDS and was born with bilateral hip dislocations, a hole in my heart, and Spina Bifida Occulta affecting both my lower spine in a visible dimple and then at the area where the disc C2-3 should be I have instead two fused vertebrae not caused by injury or surgery. Those same physical therapists and radiologists have told me that I have craniocervical instability, but the PT couldn’t do much about it except help me find exercises that were somewhat safe for my neck.

In a slow car accident involving a semi truck with three trailers hitting my car on my way to work, I sustained two fully torn vertebral discs, and at least four other bulging/slipped discs. That much damage from a car accident that didn’t even total my used vehicle? Totally a give-away for Ehler Danlos Syndrome. I know that Spina Bifida is somewhat more common in EDS families, but I don’t know if there has every been an official link acknowledged between the two, although being born C-section with dislocated hips should be a pretty good indication that I had faulty joints. It’s crazy that my doctors continue to ignore my pleas for a solid EDS diagnosis even though I fulfill the Beighton and Brighton scales/scores on every move, and even though as a child I was known in my gym as “rubberband girl”. That was in comparison to all the other ages of girls there too, some of whom competed and did very well, but were never as flexible as me. I injured myself too many times and healed too slowly to keep it up into puberty . Isn’t that almost the same story of every person with EDS who participated in rigorous and physically demanding sports not knowing they had a collagen problem?

Further proof comes from my mom’s knee cartilage disintegrating in one night of dancing, according to her, and never being the same afterwards. Also the way we scar, and the hormonal imbalance most of us have. All the hip problems, bowel problems, arthritis and vascular issues that run in my family? Probably tied in to EDS genes, is my best guess, and those are all definitely areas of the body affected by collagen or lack thereof. All areas of the body are affected by collagen production. The craziest part is that I have instead been called a liar, been misdiagnosed several times and then called a liar again, which I pushed through only to be assigned many of these so called “wastebasket diseases” for which there is no real standard of care that works for all or even most patients. I know, horrible, horrible name, “wastebasket disease” and it sucks to be in that category because many doctors actually treat you like trash. At the best they mean well but have no idea how to help you significantly.

I don’t know why I have been diagnosed with JHS since my birth, back when it was known as Benign Hypermobility Syndrome (benign, my ass), but in texts now JHS and EDS-HT are medically acknowledged to be the same disease with the exact same treatment recommendations except that with the diagnosis of EDS my doctors may understand why tiny doses of opiates have never and will never cut it. I’m so opposed to any kind of surgery until they understand if I require more anesthetic during surgery than a non-EDS patient.

When I was young and injured myself pretty much once a month, doctors would look at my bones on x-ray film and say that they looked like the bones of a much older person but that I should be fine because I have bigger bones and that should help protect me. I’m not fine, doctors! Help!!! Send me a time machine or at least a geneticist who will take me seriously! I have already lost so much mobility and flexibility, and my spine is so harshly curved now in two places that it is starting to be difficult to get dressed, my fingers get stiff and spasm a lot more, as well as dislocate with the slightest of tasks, even typing. It’s not super painful unless they dislocate in a specific way. There are places it’s happened so many times I don’t notice it except when the joints get stuck and won’t move, like my knees for instance!

The studies that have been done recently say that 90% or more of all EDS sufferers have no idea what is wrong with them, or they know but can’t see a geneticist to confirm, due to lack of clear diagnostic criteria and no clearly defined specialists who commonly deal with the genetic condition. Then there is the often prohibitive cost of genetic testing. I can see why so many of us get left to rot. And there are probably a good deal of high functioning EDSers out there who weren’t dancers or gymnasts and who didn’t abuse their bodies as much as I did, and their life will likely be normal enough that if they learn of it, it will be because of having a child who has EDS, more than likely. I want to find out before that!!! That abundance of undiagnosed EDSers living with the disease seems backed up by all the patient populations they examined in the below article. The high occurrence of fibromyalgia alongside EDS-HT (around 50% of the fibro patients had EDS markers, and around half of the studied EDS population were found to have all key fibromyalgia symptoms) makes perfect sense as outlined by the last reblog I did from EDS InfoThat post deals with the fact that Untreated Chronic Pain is a Medical Emergency, where chronic pain states are explained as often arising from untreated acute pain after trauma, which is totally true in my case. I was too young to be in real pain, because that’s a thing, and my car accident wasn’t impressive enough that I merited correct dosage of narcotics, and I was shamed into not asking for them as often as I needed them.

Anyhoo, rant aside, the article is an elegant, and unique, explanation of so much that is difficult about navigating in the world of chronic illnesses and differential diagnoses.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type: A Genetic Predisposition to the Development of Various Functional Somatic Syndromes

Introduction

Functional Somatic Syndromes, conditions characterized by functional disability and self reported symptoms rather than clearly demonstrable organic problems, are a common contemporary health issue [1]. Each medical subspecialty seems to have at least one somatic syndrome for patients whose symptoms cannot otherwise be medically explained. These include: irritable bowel syndrome (gastroenterology); fibromyalgia (rheumatology); tension headaches (neurology); and chronic fatigue syndrome (immunology) [2]. In recent years, however, a significant portion of these patients have gone on to receive a diagnoses of a little known connective tissue disorder: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome hypermobility type (EDS-HT), formerly type III [3]. In this literature review, I will discuss the features of EDS-HT, explore EDS-HT as a possible unifying concept for various functional somatic syndromes, illuminate further implications of the described findings, outline a set of diagnostic criteria that should be implemented by healthcare professionals in functional diagnostic medicine, and propose a novel way of thinking about functional somatic syndromes.

Ehlers-Danlos Hypermobility Type (EDS-HT) Overview

 EDS-HT, considered to be one and the same with joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS), is a relatively common, frequently underdiagnosed heritable condition which predisposes those afflicted to chronic, widespread musculoskeletal pain and a wide variety of articular and extra-articular features purportedly linked to constitutionally abnormal collagen. The diagnosis is primarily clinical in essence and is largely based on the Beighton score (a simple system used to quantify joint laxity and hypermobility) and medical history. It is predominantly of autosomal dominant inheritance, though the molecular basis of EDS-HT is still largely unknown except for a minority of patients mutated in TNXB and COL3A1 [4]. Skin biopsies may show alterations in collagen fibril morphology [5]. Early literature fixed the frequency of EDS as a whole to 1 in 5000, with EDS-HT accounting for approximately half of all registered cases. However, due to it’s vast underdiagnosis, a presumed frequency of 0.75-2% has been proposed for EDS-HT [4].

Hypermobility and the Autonomic Nervous System:

The Missing Link for Various Functional Somatic Syndromes

When first described, EDS-HT was considered to be a relatively benign condition, with acute and chronic joint instabilities as it’s unique clinical consequence. Recently, however, accumulated experience on the management of EDS-HT patients elucidated a more complex clinical picture. In particular, subjects with joint hypermobility appear to be more prone to developing a range of functional somatic syndromes [3], including fibromyalgia [6], chronic fatigue syndrome [7], headaches [8], complex regional pain syndrome [10], gastrointestinal functional disorder [11], pelvic organ prolapse [12], and orthostatic intolerance [13].

An underlying dysautonomic process may explain many of the aforementioned functional somatic syndromes seen in EDS-HT individuals, which are present in practically all major body systems. Leading research suggests that the pathogenic relationship between dysautonomia and congenital laxity of the connective tissue is primarily attributable to the pathological deformation of the brainstem and upper spinal cord from occipitoatlantoaxial hypermobility and cranial settling [8]. In other words, craniocervical hypermobility and instability, and the resulting deformative stress of repetitive stretching and ventral brainstem compression, appear to underlie the observed autonomic dysfunction in hypermobile patients [9]. As demonstrated in pathological reports of fatal cases of traumatic brain injury and numerous animal studies, repetitive stretching of nerves can lead to clumping and loss of neurofilaments and microtubules within the axon and promotes neural apoptosis [14][15]. Strain also alters the electrochemistry of the nerve by decreasing the amplitude of action potentials [16] and increasing calcium influx into the cell [17]. When you apply this research to the context of hypermobile individuals, the underlying process of autonomic nervous system dysfunction becomes palpable. Unsurprisingly, the histopathological changes in neural axons that are undergone in these situations would not show up on any routine diagnostic test. In extreme cases, however, cranial settling and a reduction of the clivo-axial angle may be demonstrable on MRIs, but typically only when imaged in the upright position [8]. This would explain why many of these patients’ diagnostic imaging reports state negative results.

In accord with craniocervical hypermobility findings, recent studies have suggested that up to 70% of patients with hypermobility have orthostatic intolerance and other forms of dysautonomia. The orthostatic effect in EDS-HT individuals may also be compounded by abnormal connective tissue in the vasculature, which results in an increase in blood vessel distensibility in response to the augmented hydrostatic pressure that occurs during orthostatic stress. This leads to exaggerated blood pooling in the lower extremities with a resultant tachycardia [18]. While these findings were predictable, a reversed frequency study, wherein hypermobility was measured in patients diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a prevalent form of dysautonomia in young people, found that an extraordinary 53% of participants met the diagnostic criteria for EDS-HT [19]. Furthermore, when hypermobility was measured in individuals diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a condition with a longstanding, established association with orthostatic intolerance [20], researchers found that 25% of Chronic Fatigue syndrome sufferers had generalized hypermobility [21]. This phenomena, though, is likely of multifactorial consequence, as dysautonomia, chronic pain, and sleep apnea secondary to ventral brainstem compression can result in poor sleep architecture and chronic fatigue [22][23][24].

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type as a Systemic Condition

 The autonomic nervous system problems associated with hypermobility, alike various functional somatic disorders, are present in practically all major body systems. In the realm of gastroenterology, for instance, dysautonomia in the form of vagus nerve damage (which may result from craniocervical instability) can result in delayed gastric emptying [25] and affect bowel contractibility, causing nausea and the so called “irritable bowl syndrome” [26]. Moreover, the underlying collagen abnormality of EDS-HT itself is systemic. Insufficient collagen may reduce sphincter tone and increase distensibility of the gut wall (which is likely to influence the function of surrounding cellular mechano-receptors), resulting in decreased gastrointestinal motility, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) and/or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In fact, over 50% of EDS-HT individuals have GERD and/or IBS [4][27]. When hypermobility was tested in patients diagnosed with functional gastrointestinal disorders (which include IBS, functional dyspepsia, and functional constipation), an astonishing 49% were found to have joint hypermobility and many of those patients went on to receive an official diagnosis of EDS-HT [10].

When it comes to neurological manifestations, headaches are among the most common complaint in the EDS-HT population [4]. As a consequence of occipitoatlantoaxial hypermobility, drooping of the cerebellar tonsils and obstruction of the cerebrospinal flow at the craniocervical junction can result in intracranial pressure [8][28]. In addition, rapid fluctuations in blood pressure and inadequate cerebral perfusion on upright posture caused by dysautonomia may lead to migraines [29][30]. People with lax joints are also predisposed to cervicogenic, tension, and new daily persistent headaches arising from musculoskeletal dysfunction in the temporal mandibular joints and the upper three cervical segments of the spine [4][31].

As a consequence of ligamentous laxity, rheumatological complications among the EDS-HT population are commonplace. Chronic pain in patients with joint hypermobility stems from a predisposition to injury from daily minor trauma to the joints and ligaments [32]. Unstable joints may also lead to frequent dislocations, subluxations, sprains, and stretch injury to the nerves traversing hypermobile joints, further increasing the risk of developing chronic pain states such as arthralgia, repetitive strain injuries, and complex regional pain syndrome [4][9][33]. There is also a high incidence of muscular pain attributable to myofacial spasms. Tender points consistent with fibromyalgia are often palpable, especially in the paravertebral musculature [34]. In frequency studies, the prevalence of fibromyalgia in EDS-HT participants was established to be 30% [35] and the prevalence of EDS-HT among fibromyalgia subjects was found to be 27.3% [6]. One theory for the origin of pain in fibromyalgia ascribes it to excessive muscle stress, which may increase the excitability of nociceptive ends of the muscle [36][37]. Joint instability in hyperlax individuals may result in sustained muscle stress (an overcompensation mechanism for loose and injured joints) and over stimulation of nociceptive nerve endings (which are poorly supported by defective collagen fibrils) [38]. An alternative, although equivocal, theory has suggested that biomechanical disturbances in the cervical spine may play a role in the pathogenesis of fibromyalgia. In a controlled study of 161 cases of traumatic injury to the cervical spine (primarily “whiplash”), fibromyalgia was diagnosed in 21.6% of those with neck injury verses 1.7% control subjects with lower extremity fractures [39], bringing us back to the notion that craniocervical instability, and the subsequent neurological damage, may be the underlying process in the development of functional somatic syndromes.

Further Implications of Discussed Findings in the Diagnosis and Management of Functional Somatic Syndromes

 These observations suggest that a careful examination for hypermobility and connective tissue abnormalities should be an integral part of functional diagnostic medicine. Pathological deformation of the brainstem and stretch injury to neural axons due to an underlying congenital ligamentous laxity, as discussed here in the case of EDS-HT, or acquired ligamentous instability, such as whiplash, may indeed be the missing link in the pathogenesis of various functional somatic syndromes.

In a literature review of functional somatic syndromes, Wessely and colleges concluded, “a substantial overlap exists between the individual syndromes and that the similarities between them outweigh the differences” and “patients with one syndrome frequently meet diagnostic criteria for another” [40]. For this subset of patients, generalized joint hypermobility may represent the common milieu for functional somatic syndromes with ubiquitous manifestations. The predispositions EDS-HT imposes would further explain why many of these patients are affected profoundly by emotional arousal (as it’s mediated by the autonomic nervous system) and muscle tension, and why patients with different syndromes share non-symptom characteristics such as sex (as joint laxity is more pronounced in females) and develops at a relatively young age (as EDS-HT is heritable, and hence, lifelong) [4][41].

Accordingly, articular hypermobility can be assessed by using the 9-point Beighton score, which assigns one point for each side of the body on which the patient can (1) passively dorsiflex the 5th finger >90 degrees with the forearm flat on the table, (2) passively appose the thumb to the flexor aspect of the forearm, (3) hyperextend the elbow beyond 10 degrees, and (4) hyperextend the knee beyond 10 degrees and one point for forward flexion of the trunk with the legs straight so that the palms rest flat on the floor. If a patient receives a Beighton score of 4 or more, a referral to a geneticist or rheumatologist for further evaluation is recommended [42]. If cranial settling and a reduction in the clivo-axial angle is suspected, and upright MRI may additionally aid in diagnosis [8].

With this hitherto unobserved connection comes a new line of treatment for a subdivision of patients with functional somatic disorders. Physical therapy, in the form of exercises that strengthen joint-supporting muscles, and bracing may provide joint stability and help minimize articular injury [4]. Elimination of brainstem deformation by straightening and stabilizing the craniocervical junction (via fusion surgery) may also improve pain, neural functioning, and quality of life [8].

Conclusion: A Paradigm Shift in the Etiology of Functional Somatic Syndromes

Disorders that lack “objective markers” are usually considered to be functional, not “organic.” This implies to some that the symptoms in functional somatic syndromes are physiological manifestations of psychosocial factors, a view that enforces an insular attitude to the etiology of disease rather than an interactive holistic approach. Consequently, when investigative results are negative, management is commonly limited to reassurance about the (apparent) absence of disease and occasionally psychiatric therapy. These treatments, however, are unpopular with patients, have low coherence rates, and seldom provide long-term therapeutic relief [41][43].

An alternative explanation is that the organic abnormalities are undetectable through cursory diagnostic testing as the underlying mechanism may be histopathological in origin, or, as seen in the case of upright MRIs on EDS-HT patients, the body may not be in the problematic position when testing takes place. The overly common cognitive error overshadowing high-tech medicine –that emotional issues are the underpinnings of illnesses lacking objectivity– must be overcome. While it is sufficient to say that, like virtually all known illnesses, psychosocial factors do play some role in functional somatic syndromes [1], an over emphasis on medically unexplained symptoms as being psychological bases causal reasoning on a negative. An absence of evidence does not denote an absence of organic disease –it simply means that the conditions that were tested for are not present in the individual and there is an infinite realm of alternative possibilities, such as EDS-HT.

Functional somatic disorders can only be successfully managed in the healthcare setting once a comprehensive understanding of their nature and treatment is acquired. The recognition of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility type, and other disorders involving ligamentous laxity, as a possible physiological mechanism underlying various medically unexplained symptoms will help bridge the gap in physicians’ minds between described physical complaints and apparent negative test results in a subset of patients. Henceforth, in the wake of this disclosed correlation, further investigation into the role hypermobility and connective tissue abnormalities play in the etiology of these conditions, alongside a redefinition and modification of the diagnostic criteria of functional somatic syndromes, is essential to study of medically unexplained phenomena.

via Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type: A Genetic Predisposition to the Development of Various Functional Somatic Syndromes | The Pain Relief Foundation.

The Autonomic Nervous System & Why It Matters

Please help spread the word about malfunction of the autonomic nervous system and the many chronic conditions it can cause. There is no cure for dysautonomia, it is an invisible illness, and from day to day and person to person the symptoms vary widely as does the severity, so life with any of these illnesses is a roller-coaster, to say the least. Some people are just dizzy all the time and may not even realize that it isn’t normal, and severely affected individuals faint every time they stand or even sit up for a period of time, sometimes just a few seconds.

No one bothered to teach me about the autonomic nervous system. In a perfect world, doctors would explain these things to patients who are experiencing classic symptoms of ANS malfunction, as I am, and they would explain just how involved the ANS is in so many processes throughout the body. Normally, when you are in pain or experiencing stress, your autonomic nervous system ramps up your blood pressure, makes you sweat, and elevates your heart rate. When the pain or stressor is gone, your ANS should quiet right back down again, returning to baseline (and you with it). Yet, the ANS can become part of a long-term issue like chronic pain as well. It can become so agitated that it is constantly hyperactive; constantly on. This can exhaust your body and cause a cascade of other symptoms, some of which may be unexpected such as chronic fatigue, gastroparesis, severe migraines, adrenal fatigue, increased chronic pain, and immune issues.

First, it’s important to understand just how much the autonomic nervous system matters. It is involved in most involuntary actions in the body, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, kidney function, and temperature control. Imagine never being the right temperature; always being too hot or too cold. When I say “too cold” I don’t mean in a mildly uncomfortable way, the way it feels to be out in the cold too long for a regular person, instead it can actually be quite painful and feel like it’s coming from the inside out, stinging and zapping your skin anywhere it touches articles of clothing or a draft hits it. Standing up with dysautonomia is like climbing Mt. Everest on bad days, and the constant headaches and digestive issues get old, fast.

Here is a pretty good overview of what Dysautonomia is, who gets it, what treatments are available, and other useful tidbits of info about ANS malfunction, so you can help spread awareness this month;

WhatIsDysautonomiaInfographic

Image by Rachael Rodriguez.

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