The First Signs of Elusive Dysautonomia May Appear on the Skin

Doug Brunk

July 27, 2021

The initial manifestations of dysautonomia may be dermatologic related, so awareness of what to look for is essential.

During the annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology, Adelaide A. Hebert, MD, defined dysautonomia as an umbrella term describing conditions that result in a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system. "This encompasses both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic components of the nervous system," said Hebert, professor of dermatology and pediatrics, and chief of pediatric dermatology at the University of Texas, Houston. "Clinical findings may be neurometabolic, developmental, and/or degenerative," representing a "whole constellation of issues" that physicians may encounter in practice, she noted. Of particular interest is postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which affects between 1 million and 3 million people in the United States. Typical symptoms include lightheadedness, fainting, and a rapid increase in heartbeat after standing up from a seated position. Other conditions associated with dysautonomia include neurocardiogenic syncope and multiple system atrophy.

Dysautonomia can impact the brain, heart, mouth, blood vessels, eyes, immune cells, and bladder, as well as the skin. Patient presentations vary with symptoms that can range from mild to debilitating. The average time from symptom onset to diagnosis of dysautonomia is 7 years. "It is very difficult to put together these mysterious symptoms that patients have unless one really thinks about dysautonomia as a possible diagnosis," Hebert said.

One of the common symptoms that she has seen in her clinical practice is joint hypermobility. "There is a known association between dysautonomia and hypermobile-type Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), and these patients often have hyperhidrosis," she said. "So, keep in mind that you could see hypermobility, especially in those with EDS, with associated hyperhidrosis and dysautonomia." Two key references that she recommends to clinicians when evaluating patients with possible dysautonomia are a study on postural tachycardia in hypermobile EDS, and an article on cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction in hypermobile EDS.

The Beighton Scoring System, which measures joint mobility on a 9-point scale, involves assessment of the joint mobility of the knuckle of both pinky fingers, the base of both thumbs, the elbows, knees, and spine. An instructional video on how to perform a joint hypermobility assessment is available on the Ehler-Danlos Society website.

Literature Review

In March 2021, Hebert and colleagues from other medical specialties published a summary of the literature on cutaneous manifestations in dysautonomia, with an emphasis on syndromes of orthostatic intolerance. "We had neurology, cardiology, along with dermatology involved in contributing the findings they had seen in the UTHealth McGovern Dysautonomia Center of Excellence as there was a dearth of literature that taught us about the cutaneous manifestations of orthostatic intolerance syndromes," Hebert said.

One study included in the review showed that 23 out of 26 patients with POTS had at least one of the following cutaneous manifestations: flushing, Raynaud's phenomenon, evanescent hyperemia, livedo reticularis, erythromelalgia, and hypo- or hyperhidrosis. "If you see a patient with any of these findings, you want to think about the possibility of dysautonomia," she said, adding that urticaria can also be a finding.

To screen for dysautonomia, she advised, "ask patients if they have difficulty sitting or standing upright, if they have indigestion or other gastric symptoms, abnormal blood vessel functioning such as low or high blood pressure, increased or decreased sweating, changes in urinary frequency or urinary incontinence, or challenges with vision."

If the patient answers yes to two or more of these questions, she said, consider a referral to neurology and/or cardiology or a center of excellence for further evaluation with tilt-table testing and other screening tools. She also recommended a review published in 2015 that describes the dermatological manifestations of postural tachycardia syndrome and includes illustrated cases.

One of Hebert's future dermatology residents assembled a composite of data from the Dysautonomia Center of Excellence, and in the study, found that, compared with males, females with dysautonomia suffer more from excessive sweating, paleness of the face, pale extremities, swelling, cyanosis, cold intolerance, flushing, and hot flashes.

Hebert disclosed that she has been a consultant to and an adviser for several pharmaceutical companies.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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