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Sympathetic Nervous System Function and Dysfunction in Chronic Hemodialysis Patients


Address correspondence to: Dvora Rubinger MD, Nephrology and Hypertension Services, Hadassah University Medical Center, Ein Kerem 91120, POB 12000, Jerusalem, Israel, Tel.: 972-2-6776589, Fax: 972-2-6427260, or e-mail:


Adequate sympathetic nervous system activation is essential for the compensatory mechanisms of blood pressure maintenance during the hemodialysis (HD) procedure. Chronic sympathetic nervous system overactivity, however, may lead to the development of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in HD patients. The present review focuses on recent findings on the sympathetic nervous system activity in these patients. Sympathetic overactivity has been demonstrated directly by muscle sympathetic nerve activity recordings (MSNA) in chronic renal disease, but only rarely in HD patients. In the latter, sympathetic activity has mostly been assessed using indirect methodology. Decreased heart rate variability, increased blood pressure variability (BPV), and suppressed baroreflex function are believed to represent chronic sympathetic overactivity in HD patients. The HD procedure and ultrafiltration are associated with enhanced sympathetic activity and baroreflex activation. During most episodes of intradialytic hypotension, the baroreflex is adequately activated; sympathetic withdrawal with bradycardia, however, has been reported during excessive hypovolemia. Sympathetic overactivity is also believed to be a mechanism associated with intradialytic hypertensive episodes and refractory hypertension. While successful renal transplantation is associated with improvement of heart rate variability (HRV), improvement and restoration of baroreflex function, persistent sympathetic overactivity has been documented in transplanted patients using MSNA recordings. Decreased HRV and baroreflex function have been reported to be associated with increased mortality and morbidity in HD patients. The predictive value of sympathetic outflow assessed by MSNA has yet to be determined. Optimization of HD treatment, pharmacological interventions, and renal sympathetic denervation are several approaches targeting sympathetic overactivity to improve cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.