Autonomic Dysreflexia in Children

June 9, 2023
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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Autonomic dysreflexia is a serious, potentially life-threatening medical condition that affects patients of any age, including children. If you are a parent of a child dealing with this condition or at risk for this condition, it is critical to understand the causes, treatment options, and how to recognize triggers that require immediate medical attention.

This guide can help parents and caregivers actively care for a child with autonomic dysreflexia to achieve the best possible outcome and quality of life for this diagnosis.

What is autonomic dysreflexia?

Autonomic dysreflexia, or AD, is a condition involving the abnormal, sudden, and exaggerated response of the autonomic nervous system to what physicians call a “noxious stimulus” below the level of injury. The autonomic nervous system regulates many automatic bodily functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. A noxious stimulus is anything affecting the body that can be potentially harmful.

For example, noxious stimuli such as bladder infection or constipation could trigger an AD episode. This in turn can cause a sudden and extreme increase in blood pressure, which can cause related symptoms.

Autonomic Dysreflexia Causes and Risk Factors

The most common cause of autonomic dysreflexia in children is a spinal cord injury at or above the sixth thoracic vertebra (T6) level in the spinal column. The spinal cord is a critical part of the central nervous system, sending sensory and motor information between the brain and the rest of the body. In addition to affecting mobility and sensation, damage to the spinal cord can also disrupt the functioning of the autonomic nervous system.

Other conditions associated with AD are Guillain-Barré syndrome, side effects of certain medications, severe head trauma and acquired traumatic brain injury, and subarachnoid hemorrhage.

Noxious stimuli that can trigger an AD episode include:

  • Bladder or bowel distension due to a full bladder or bowel
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Pressure sores or wounds
  • Ingrown toenails or other foot problems
  • Tight clothing or equipment
  • Environmental factors, such as extreme temperatures or changes in altitude

It is important to minimize the risk of noxious stimuli and learn to recognize the symptoms of AD to provide timely and effective treatment.

Symptoms of Autonomic Dysreflexia

Common symptoms of an AD episode include:

  • Sudden increase in blood pressure
  • Throbbing headaches
  • Muscle spasms
  • Excessive sweating
  • Flushing
  • Chills
  • Goosebumps
  • Nasal congestion
  • Blurred vision
  • Anxiety and worry

Diagnosing Autonomic Dysreflexia in Children

To confirm the diagnosis of AD, a doctor may perform a series of tests, including:

  • Blood pressure monitoring
  • Neurological examination
  • Blood tests
  • Imaging tests

If the diagnosis of AD is confirmed, prompt treatment is critical for the health and safety of children with this condition.

Treating Autonomic Dysreflexia in Children

The first line of treatment usually involves identifying and removing the noxious stimulus. This can include sitting upright, emptying the bladder, treating an infection, and administering medication to lower blood pressure if necessary. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required.

Prevention is also essential to managing AD in children with spinal cord injuries. This includes regularly monitoring bladder and bowel function, preventing pressure sores or wounds, and managing other medical issues that could trigger an AD response.

Caring for a Child With Autonomic Dysreflexia

Because AD can be life-threatening, prompt recognition and treatment are essential to prevent serious complications. Caregivers and medical personnel should be trained to recognize AD’s signs and symptoms and take immediate action if they suspect it.

To provide the level of care that children dealing with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and other conditions associated with autonomic dysreflexia deserve, pediatric home health services can help families in many ways. A caring and dedicated, highly trained home health professional can provide a safe environment, administer needed medication, help with nutrition, monitor for potential signs of AD, or provide respite care. Services can be customized for nearly any situation.

Many families with multiple children or busy schedules turn to the caring and compassionate services a home health registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN) can provide to achieve the best possible outcome for this condition.

Contact Care Options for Kids For Pediatric Home Health Care

It can be hard to balance your time between work, home, and caring for a child. That’s why our team of skilled professionals at Care Options for Kids is here to help.

Our home health care services offer support in the comfort of your home. We refer loving and competent nurses to provide customized care for families — from a few hours a day to around-the-clock supervision. Contact us directly to speak with a home health care professional or request a free in-home assessment. Together we can determine the best plan of action to keep your loved ones happy and healthy.

If you are considering pediatric home health care services, contact the caring staff at Care Options for Kids. Call today at (888) 592-5855.