Diabetic autonomic neuropathy (DAN) occurs in approximately half of Caucasian patients with diabetes and perhaps three-fourths of black diabetic patients. This may be asymptomatic for several years, but the majority of patients with DAN eventually exhibit symptoms of diarrhea, cardiac arrhythmias, sexual dysfunction, and abnormal sweating. Prolonged hyperglycemia results in damage to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), particularly the vagus nerve and other parts of the parasympathetic division. DAN is associated with increased risk of sudden death, high-risk cardiac arrhythmias, myocardial infarction, and death from other causes. Objective testing of autonomic nervous system function yields specific information that affects treatment decisions. Drug therapy can effect improvements in ANS function and reduce these risks.
Complications of diabetes that result from ANS dysfunction can be partly reversed or their progress can be slowed by appropriate drug therapy. Features, implications, and therapy of the most common complications resulting from DAN are reviewed, and suggestions for pharmacist involvement in the care of these difficult patients are offered.