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Autonomic dysreflexia, which is also known as hyperreflexia occurs in patients with a spinal cord injury at a T-5 level and above. A person that suffers from autonomic dysreflexia has an over-active autonomic nervous system. This condition can come on suddenly and may lead to seizures, strokes and death. It should be treated as an emergency situation.
Autonomic dysreflexia generally happens when an irritating stimulus is presented below the level of the spinal cord injury. An overfull bladder is enough to trigger it. The stimulus of the irritating condition sends nerve impulses to the spinal cord. The impulses travel up the spinal cord, but get blocked by the lesion at the level of the injury. The impulses cannot reach the brain, so a reflex is activated. This reflex increases activity of the sympathetic portion of the nervous system, which then results in spasms and narrowing blood vessels. This, in turn, causes higher blood pressure. The nerve receptors in the heart and blood vessels send a message to the brain, which then sends a message to the heart slowing down the heartbeat and dilating the blood vessels above the level of the injury. Blood pressure cannot be regulated because the brain cannot send messages below the level of the injury.