Electrophysiological tests of autonomic function in patients with idiopathic autonomic failure syndromes

John Ravits, Mark Hallett, Jan Nilsson, Ronald Polinsky, James Dambrosia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Three electrophysiological tests of autonomic function were performed in patients with autonomic nervous system dysfunction to define test sensitivities and specificities. The skin sympathetic response, Valsalva ratio, and heart rate variation with deep breathing were studied in 10 patients with multiple system atrophy (MSA) and in 7 patients with pure (also called progressive or primary) autonomic failure (PAF); control subjects were 17 normal individuals of similar age. Thirteen patients had abnormal skin sympathetic responses, and 16 had abnormal Valsalva ratios. Fourteen patients had an abnormal variation of the heart rate with deep breathing. Taking the three tests together, binary logistic regression for distinguishing between patients and normal subjects correctly classified 91% of the 33 individuals for whom there were complete data with sensitivity of 88% and specificity of 94%. However, only 69% of the patients could be correctly classified by a logistic regression for discriminating between MSA and PAF. Electromyography (EMG) studies showed that 7 of 8 patients with MSA but only 2 of 7 patients with PAF (both multiparous women) had denervation of the rectal sphincter muscle. The EMG study is, therefore, valuable in men, but has a high false positive rate in women, probably because of pudendal nerve injury from parturition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)758-763
Number of pages6
JournalMuscle and Nerve
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 1996


  • autonomic function
  • multisystem atrophy
  • pure autonomic failure
  • sinus arrhythmia
  • sympathetic skin response
  • Valsalva ratio

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neuroscience(all)


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