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Herz. 1993 Jun;18(3):164-74.

Alterations in reflex function contributing to syncope: orthostatic hypotension, carotid sinus hypersensitivity and drug-induced dysfunction.

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  • 1Department of Internal Medicine, University of Iowa, Iowa City.


Orthostatic hypotension and related neurologic symptoms are frequently encountered in clinical practice. The maintenance of appropriate blood pressure and heart rate responses upon assuming the upright posture are dependent upon: 1. intact mechanical (venous valves) mechanisms, 2. functioning arterial and cardiopulmonary baroreceptors, 3. normal peripheral neural pathways, 4. normal central neural integration, and 5. appropriate neurohormonal secretion. Dysfunction at one or more of these loci may facilitate the occurrence of orthostatic hypotension and syncope. In general, the mechanisms of orthostatic hypotension may be divided into three categories. In the first category, processes interfere with normal compensatory responses to upright posture. Examples of this mechanism include age related autonomic changes, diabetic neuropathy and central nervous system disease such as Shy-Drager syndrome. The second principal mechanism involves overwhelming otherwise normal reflexes by an intense orthostatic stimulus. An obvious example of this mechanism is syncope related to hemorrhage. A final category of orthostatic hypotension relates to interference with reflex responses by drugs that may limit vasoconstriction, heart rate or cardiac output adjustments or exaggerate venous pooling. These are commonly used medications such as vasodilators, beta-adrenergic blockers and nitrates. The treatment of orthostatic hypotension revolves around the recognition of underlying causes or contributing factors amenable to correction or avoidance. Other helpful treatment options include nocturnal head-up tilting and mineralocorticoids, both of which help to expand blood volume. Many other therapeutic agents have been tried in small and selected patient populations, often with disappointing results. While many of the drugs available (phenylephrine, ephedrine, tyramine, dihydroergotamine) can improve upright blood pressure, side effects are common, and supine hypertension is problematic in many patients. Interventions of this type should be carefully initiated in a monitored setting. The carotid sinus is an important component of a neural control system responsible for heart rate and blood pressure homeostasis. Excessive heart rate and blood pressure responses to distortion of the carotid sinus are the basis for the carotid sinus syndrome (CSS). Patients with CSS tend to be elderly males and local pathology in the neck is frequently involved. Atherosclerotic coronary artery disease and hypertension are important clinical correlates. Two major categories of carotid sinus hypersensitivity (CSH) are recognized: cardioinhibitory and vasodepressor. Cardioinhibitory CSH is the most common, and in its purest form consists of sinus bradycardia or arrest, asystole or AV block during carotid sinus massage. This vagally-mediated response is eliminated by atropine. Cardiac pacing is nearly universally successful in preventing severe symptoms.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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