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Physical Health

Autonomic Dysreflexia Causes

If you think you may be experiencing autonomic dysreflexia, it's essential to act promptly. Learn about the potential causes and whether a trip to the ER is needed

by: ABC April, 2021 5 min read

There are many potential causes of autonomic dysreflexia, a serious medical condition that afflicts some people with a spinal cord injury. Learn more about common causes, treatment, and symptoms.

Autonomic dysreflexia can occur for some people with a spinal cord injury and cause dire medical emergencies such as stroke, seizure, or cardiac arrest. It can happen when the body overreacts to many different types of stimuli.

Figuring out autonomic dysreflexia causes

There are a wide variety of autonomic dysreflexia causes. They can range from a blocked catheter to sexual activity to an ingrown toenail. The commonality is that it is something new going on below your level of spinal cord injury that your body's autonomic system "control center" overreacts to by raising your blood pressure and lowering your heart rate.

Sometimes the cause warrants a trip to the ER anyway, such as broken bones, fractures, open wounds, or other types of severe trauma to some part of your body below the level of injury. But often the root problem is something minor. Let's explore three common areas of autonomic system stimuli that might be the culprit.

Bladder causes

Bladder problems are the most common autonomic dysreflexia causes. Several potential bladder issues can cause this condition. If you think you are experiencing autonomic dysreflexia, you and your caregiver should check for bladder problems that can be quickly fixed.

For example, it may simply be an issue with your catheter. Examine your catheter bag to see if it may be at or near capacity. If that's not the problem, look for other issues with your catheter. Is it connected properly? Are there any kinks or anything blocking urine flow?

Another common cause of autonomic dysreflexia is incomplete emptying of your bladder if you use an intermittent catheter. It's vital to stay on your optimum schedule and ensure complete emptying to avoid the onset of this serious condition.

Other more serious bladder issues that may require a trip to your physician include infections and bladder or kidney stones. Certain medical tests may also cause autonomic dysreflexia, so check with your doctor about the risks before proceeding. 

Bowel problems

Other common autonomic dysreflexia causes fall under the bowel category. For instance, constipation, hard stools, or digital stimulation done too roughly (or without enough lubricant) can cause this condition's onset. Hemorrhoids, gas, flatulence, and bloating may also bring it on. It's possible to resolve these bowel issues at home, but medical assistance may be needed, especially if you continue to experience the symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia.

An infection in the bowels is another possibility that warrants a trip to the doctor or ER.

Skin-related issues

Many very minor skin-related issues can trigger your autonomic system into overdrive. They include

·       Tight-fitting clothing, belts, braces, or shoes

·       Pinched or constricted genitalia

·       Hard or sharp object pressing against your body

·       Ingrown toenails

·       Insect bites

·       Sunburns or burns

More serious skin issues, such as pressure sores, severe burns, or lacerations, may not be remedied from home. If you suspect these might be the root cause, arrange for a trip to the doctor or ER.

Other autonomic dysreflexia causes

These three areas comprise the most common autonomic dysreflexia causes, but there is a long list of potential stimuli that warrant quick action. The universal characteristic of these autonomic system stimuli is any activity or event where you normally would feel pain, discomfort, or — in the case of sexual activity — intense sensations below your level of injury.

If the cause of your autonomic dysreflexia cannot be pinpointed and resolved at home, please treat it as a medical emergency and head to your nearest ER.


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