Sympathetic nervous system activation in essential hypertension, cardiac failure and psychosomatic heart disease

J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2000;35(7 Suppl 4):S1-7. doi: 10.1097/00005344-200000004-00001.


Regional sympathetic activity can be studied in humans using electrophysiological methods measuring sympathetic nerve firing rates and neurochemical techniques providing quantification of noradrenaline spillover to plasma from sympathetic nerves in individual organs. Essential hypertension: Such measurements in patients with essential hypertension disclose activation of the sympathetic outflows to skeletal muscle blood vessels, the heart and kidneys, particularly in younger patients. This sympathetic activation, in addition to underpinning the blood pressure elevation, most likely also contributes to left ventricular hypertrophy, and to the commonly associated metabolic abnormalities of insulin resistance and hyperlipidaemia. Antihypertensive drugs, such as moxonidine, which act primarily by inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system, should have additional clinical benefits beyond those attributable to blood pressure reduction, in protecting against hypertensive complications. Obesity-related hypertension: Understanding the neural pathophysiology of hypertension in the obese has been difficult. In normotensive obesity, renal sympathetic tone is doubled, but cardiac noradrenaline spillover (a measure of sympathetic activity in the heart) is only 50% of normal. In obesity-related hypertension, there is a comparable elevation of renal noradrenaline spillover, but without suppression of cardiac sympathetics (cardiac sympathetic activity being more than double that of normotensive obese and 25% higher than in healthy volunteers). Increased renal sympathetic activity in obesity may be a 'necessary' cause for the development of hypertension (and predisposes to hypertension development), but apparently is not a 'sufficient' cause. The discriminating feature of the obese who develop hypertension is the absence of the adaptive suppression of cardiac sympathetic tone seen in the normotensive obese. Heart failure: In cardiac failure, the sympathetic nerves of the heart are preferentially stimulated. Noradrenaline release from the failing heart at rest in untreated patients is increased as much as 50-fold, similar to the level seen in the healthy heart during near-maximal exercise. Activation of the cardiac sympathetic outflow provides adrenergic support to the failing myocardium, but at a cost of arrhythmia development and progressive myocardial deterioration. Psychosomatic heart disease: No more than 50% of clinical coronary heart disease is explicable in terms of classical cardiac risk factors. There is gathering evidence that psychological abnormalities, particularly depressive illness, anxiety states, including panic disorder and mental stress, are involved here, 'triggering' clinical cardiovascular events, and possibly also contributing to atherosclerosis development. The mechanisms of increased cardiac risk attributable to mental stress and psychiatric illness are not entirely clear, but activation of the sympathetic nervous system seems to be of prime importance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Heart Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Heart Failure / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / physiopathology*
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*