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Autonomic Dysreflexia

Symptoms of Autonomic Dysreflexia

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Updated September 12, 2006

The following information is adapted from The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, by Dr. Miriam Kaufman, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette.

Autonomic Dysreflexia is a potentially life-threatening response to a problem in the body that is most likely to occur in people with a spinal cord injury at or above thoracic level 6 (T-6). Autonomic dysreflexia is usually triggered by:

  • Bladder or bowel problems
  • Being in labor
  • Sexual activity
  • Use of a vibrator

The body identifies a problem, but there is no conscious awareness of the problem because messages to and from the brain get blocked by the spinal cord injury. Blood vessels constrict and blood pressure rises. Other parts of your body sense the increase in blood pressure and try to counteract the change by slowing your heart rate and sending signals to tell your blood vessels to relax. These signals can't get through the spinal cord lesion. Blood pressure continues to rise. Other symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia may include:

  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Increased spasticity
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nausea
  • Erection of body hair.

Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for, and deal with autonomic dysreflexia:

  • It’s crucial to have an emergency plan so you (and your partner, PCA, family members) know what to do.
  • Learn the warning signs of autonomic dysreflexia and know how to check yourself out.
  • Get into a position where your head is elevated, your clothes are loosened and your shoes are off.
  • Make someone stay with you while you or they call for help.

For more information the Paralyzed Veterans of America have put together an excellent, and free, autonomic dysreflexia information booklet. You can contact them 1-888-860-7244.

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