Autonomic Disorders and Syncope

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13 Autonomic Disorders and Syncope

Anatomy of the Autonomic System

The primary role of the autonomic system is the maintenance of homeostasis and this is done by two separate but complementary systems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The central regulation of the autonomic system is mediated by neurons in the frontal lobe, limbic system and the hypothalamus. The preganglionic neurons of the sympathetic nervous system arise from the intermediolateral column of the thoracic spinal cord. These axons form the white communicating rami that synapse with the neurons of the sympathetic ganglia in the paravertebral chain; postganglionic fibers form the gray communicating rami that travel along with the spinal nerves to blood vessels and sweat glands (Fig. 13-1). Sympathetic innervation of the adrenal medulla is the exception as it receives preganglionic sympathetic fibers; the adrenal medulla is considered the equivalent of a sympathetic ganglion, and it secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine directly into the blood stream (Fig. 13-1).

The parasympathetic system consists of the cranial and sacral output; the cranial output arises in the visceral nuclei of the cranial nerves III, VII, IX, and X, and the axons travel along with the respective cranial nerves to innervate target organs. The preganglionic fibers from the Edinger–Westphal nucleus travel in the oculomotor nerve (III) and synapse in the ciliary ganglion innervating the ciliary and pupillary muscles (Fig. 13-2). The preganglionic fibers from the superior salivatory nuclei travel along with the facial nerve (VII) as greater petrosal nerve and the chorda tympani, synapse in the sphenopalatine and submandibular ganglion, and innervate the lacrimal, submandibular, and sublingual glands (Fig. 13-3). The preganglionic fibers from the inferior salivatory nuclei travel along with the glossopharyngeal nerve (IX) and synapse in the otic ganglion and innervate the parotid gland (Fig. 13-4). The preganglionic fibers from the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus travel along with the vagal nerve (X) and synapse in the ganglia in the walls of the viscera and innervate the visceral organs of the gastrointestinal, cardiac, and renal systems (Fig. 13-5). The sacral part of the parasympathetic system arises from the sacral spinal cord, synapses in the ganglia in the walls of the organs, and innervates the colon, bladder, and pelvic organs (Fig. 13-6).

Autonomic functions are mediated through neurotransmitters released by the sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons. Acetylcholine is the most important neurotransmitter. This is released by preganglionic sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons as well as all postganglionic parasympathetic neurons and some postganglionic sympathetic neurons (e.g., sweat glands). Norepinephrine is the other important autonomic neurotransmitter. It is secreted by the remaining postganglionic sympathetic neurons directing its action on both α- and β-adrenergic receptors.

Clinical Presentations

Typically, patients have combinations of both parasympathetic and sympathetic dysfunction (Fig. 13-7). The former is characterized by dry mucous membranes, particularly noticeable in the eyes and mouth, with varying gastrointestinal involvement manifested as early satiety, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, urinary bladder dysmotility, and erectile dysfunction.

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