Shy-Drager syndrome

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Shy-Drager Syndrome



Shy-Drager syndrome (SDS) is a rare condition that causes progressive damage to the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls vital involuntary body functions such as heart rate, breathing, and intestinal, urinary, and sexual functions. The autonomic nervous system also controls skin and body temperature, and how the body responds to stress. Shy-Drager syndrome leads to dizziness or fainting when standing up, urinary incontinence, impotence, and muscle tremors.


SDS was named for neurologists Milton Shy, M.D., from the National Institutes of Health, and Glenn Drager, M.D., from the Baylor College of Medicine, who first described the condition in 1960. It typically affects those between ages 50-70. It affects more men than women. In severe cases, the person cannot even stand up. Symptoms can be mild as well. Sometimes, people with mild cases are misdiagnosed as having anxiety or hypertension.
Many nonprescription drugs, such as cold medicines and diet capsules, can trigger extremely high blood pressure spikes in patients with SDS, even in very low doses. Therefore, these patients are at risk for strokes and excessive bleeding (hemorrhage) if they take even the recommended dosage of these drugs.

Causes and symptoms

The cause of SDS is unknown. Symptoms develop because of degeneration of certain groups of nerve cells in the spinal cord.
Patients with SDS usually have problems with the function of the autonomic nervous system. Progressive degeneration may occur in other areas of the nervous system as well. The hallmark of the syndrome is dizziness and fainting when arising or after standing still for a long time (postural hypotension). This is caused by low blood pressure and inadequate blood flow to the brain. When this problem becomes severe (for example, a blood pressure below 70/40 mmHg), it can lead to a momentary loss of consciousness. When the person faints, the blood pressure returns to normal and the person wakes up.
Many patients also notice impotence, urinary incontinence, dry mouth and skin, and trouble regulating body temperature because of abnormal sweating. Since the autonomic nervous system also controls the narrowing and widening of the iris, some patients with SDS have vision problems, such as trouble focusing.
In later stages, problems in the autonomic nervous system lead to breathing difficulties such as sleep apnea, loud breathing, and snoring. In advanced stages of the disease, patients can die from irregular heartbeat.
Other symptoms of SDS do not involve the autonomic nervous system. These include parkinsonism (muscle tremor, rigidity, and slow movements), double vision, problems controlling emotions, and wasting of muscles in the hands and feet. Eventually, patients may have problems chewing, swallowing, speaking, and breathing. There may be a loss of color pigment in the iris.


While no blood test can reveal the disorder, a careful assessment of symptoms should alert a neurologist to suspect SDS. A combination of parkinsonism and certain autonomic problems (especially impotence, incontinence, and postural hypotension) are clear indications of the syndrome.
Tests of the autonomic nervous system may help diagnose the condition. In normal patients, blood levels of norepinephrine rise when they stand up. This doesn't happen in people with SDS. Norepinephrine is a hormone that helps maintain blood pressure by triggering certain blood vessels to constrict when blood pressure falls below normal. Another test for the condition is the Valsalva maneuver. In this test, the patient holds his or her breath and strains down as if having a bowel movement while the doctor monitors blood pressure and heart rate for 10 seconds. Patients with SDS will not have the normal increase in blood pressure and heart rate.
A variety of other tests can identify a broad range of autonomic problems in patients with SDS. Brain scans, however, don't usually reveal any problems.


Medication can relieve many of the symptoms, especially the parkinsonism and low blood pressure. However, typical antiparkinsonism drugs such as carbidopa-levodopa (Sinemet) should be used with caution, since they often worsen the postural low blood pressure and may cause fainting.
Because postural hypotension is the most troublesome of the symptoms in the early years, treatments center on relieving this problem. Patients are encouraged to eat a liberal salt diet and drink plenty of fluids. They are advised to wear waist-high elastic hosiery and to sleep with the head elevated at least 5 in (13 cm). Other drug treatment includes fludrocortisone, indomethacin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, beta blockers, central stimulants, and other medications.
Occasionally, a pacemaker, gastrostomy, or tracheostomy may be needed. A pacemaker is a device that delivers electrical impulses to the heart to keep it beating regularly. A gastrostomy creates an opening in the stomach to connect a feeding tube from outside the body. In a tracheostomy an opening is made in the windpipe and a tube is inserted to maintain breathing.


While the course of the disease varies, and some patients live for up to 20 years after the symptoms first appear, most patients become severely disabled within seven or eight years. It is unusual for someone to survive more than 15 years after diagnosis.
Symptoms (especially tremor) often get worse if the patient smokes, because of the nicotine.
Many patients develop swallowing problems which may lead to recurrent episodes of pneumonia, a frequent cause of death. Others experience Cheyne-Stokes (periodic breathing). One of the most common causes of death is pulmonary embolus. This is caused by a blood clot in the main artery in the lung.

Key terms

Autonomic nervous system — The part of the nervous system that controls the involuntary (apparently automatic) activities of organs, blood vessels, glands, and many other body tissues.
Degenerative — Degenerative disorders involve progressive impairment of both the structure and function of part of the body.
Gastrostomy — An artificial opening into the stomach through the abdomen to enable a patient to be fed via a feeding tube. The procedure is given to patients with SDS who are unable to chew or swallow.
Norepinephrine — A hormone that helps maintain blood pressure by triggering certain blood vessels to constrict when blood pressure falls below normal.
Sleep apnea — A sleep disorder characterized by periods of breathing cessation lasting for 10 seconds or more.
Tracheostomy — An opening through the neck into the trachea through which a tube may be inserted to maintain an effective airway and help a patient breathe.


Since scientists don't know the cause of Shy-Drager syndrome, there is no way to prevent the condition.



American Academy of Neurology. 1080 Montreal Ave., St. Paul, MN 55116. (612) 695-1940.
Association for Neuro-Metabolic Disorders. 5223 Brookfield Lane, Sylvania, OH 43560-1809. (419) 885-1497.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. P.O. Box 5801, Bethesda, MD 20824. (800) 352-9424.
National Organization for Rare Disorders. P.O. Box 8923, New Fairfield, CT 06812-8923. (800) 999-6673.
Shy-Drager Syndrome Support Group. 2004 Howard Lane, Austin, TX 78728. (800) 288-5582. 〈〉.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


diminished tension; lowered blood pressure. A consistently low blood pressure (systolic pressure less than 100 mm of mercury) usually is no cause for concern. In fact, low blood pressure often is associated with long life. However, extremely low blood pressure may be a sign of a serious condition such as shock, massive hemorrhage, hypovolemia, or severe dehydration from nausea and vomiting. In shock there is a disproportion between the blood volume and the capacity of the circulatory system, resulting in greatly reduced blood pressure. Hypotension may also be associated with addison's disease or inadequate thyroid function, but in both cases the primary disease produces so many other symptoms that the hypotension is not a major focus for concern.
orthostatic hypotension (postural hypotension) a fall in blood pressure (usually defined as a 20 to 30 point change in pulse or blood pressure), associated with dizziness, syncope, and blurred vision, occurring when a person goes from lying down or sitting to standing; it can be acquired or idiopathic, transient or chronic, and may occur alone or secondary to a disorder of the central nervous system such as the shy-drager syndrome.
supine hypotension vena caval syndrome.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

Shy-Dra·ger syn·drome

(shī drā'gĕr), [MIM*146500]
a now-obsolete term for multiple system atrophy in which autonomic nervous system failure predominates.

Shy-Dra·ger syn·drome

(shī drā'gĕr), [MIM*146500]
a now-obsolete term for multiple system atrophy in which autonomic nervous system failure predominates.
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012

Shy-Drager syndrome

The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Shy-Drager syndrome

Neurologic orthostatic hypotension, Shy-McGee-Drager syndrome Neurology A rare idiopathic degenerative disorder affecting primarily older ♂, characterized by progressive damage to the autonomic nervous system Clinical Tremor, rigidity, slowed movement, neurologic defects. Cf Parkinsonism.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Shy-Dra·ger syn·drome

(shī drā'gĕr sin'drōm)
A progressive disorder involving the autonomic system, characterized by hypotension, external ophthalmoplegia, iris atrophy, incontinence, anhidrosis, impotence, tremor, and muscle wasting.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012

Shy-Drager syndrome

A rare degenerative disorder of the autonomic nervous system affecting elderly people. Men are affected more often than women and the cause is unknown. The syndrome features dizziness on standing up (postural hypotension), Parkinsonism, incontinence of urine and impotence. There is no specific treatment. (George Milton Shy, 1919–67, American physician; and Glen A. Drager, 1917–67, American neurologist).
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


Glenn A., U.S. neurologist, 1917–.
Shy-Drager syndrome - see under Shy


George Milton, U.S. neurologist, 1919-1967.
Shy-Drager syndrome - a progressive disorder involving the autonomic system, characterized by hypotension, external ophthalmoplegia, iris atrophy, incontinence, anhidrosis, impotence, tremor, and muscle wasting.
Shy-Magee syndrome - progressive muscle disease that begins in the first year of life.
Medical Eponyms © Farlex 2012