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Lost among the trees? The autonomic nervous system and paediatrics
  1. Corinne A Rees
  1. School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Corinne A Rees, Westgate House, Southmead Hospital, Westbury on Trym, Bristol BS10 5NB, UK; drcarees{at}


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has been strikingly neglected in Western medicine. Despite its profound importance for regulation, adjustment and coordination of body systems, it lacks priority in training and practice and receives scant attention in numerous major textbooks. The ANS is integral to manifestations of illness, underlying familiar physical and psychological symptoms. When ANS activity is itself dysfunctional, usual indicators of acute illness may prove deceptive. Recognising the relevance of the ANS can involve seeing the familiar through fresh eyes, challenging assumptions in clinical assessment and in approaches to practice. Its importance extends from physical and psychological well-being to parenting and safeguarding, public services and the functioning of society. Exploration of its role in conditions ranging from neurological, gastrointestinal and connective tissue disorders, diabetes and chronic fatigue syndrome, to autism, behavioural and mental health difficulties may open therapeutic avenues. The ANS offers a mechanism for so-called functional illnesses and illustrates the importance of recognising that ‘stress’ takes many forms, physical, psychological and environmental, desirable and otherwise. Evidence of intrauterine and post-natal programming of ANS reactivity suggests that neonatal care and safeguarding practice may offer preventive opportunity, as may greater understanding of epigenetic change of ANS activity through, for example, accidental or psychological trauma or infection. The aim of this article is to accelerate recognition of the importance of the ANS throughout paediatrics, and of the potential physical and psychological cost of neglecting it.

  • General Paediatrics
  • Comm Child Health
  • Child Psychology
  • History Of Medicine
  • Paediatric Practice

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