In normals, subcutaneous blood flow in the ankle region, measured by means of the 133Xe washout technique, decreases about 45% when the position of the ankle is changed from cardiac level to 50 cm below the heart. A sympathetic vascular axon reflex is responsible for this flow reduction.
A normal response [mean blood-flow reduction, 49% (range, 40 to 64%)] was found in seven diabetics without neuropathy. In nine diabetics with autonomic neuropathy (beat-to-beat variation in heart rate ≤ 15 min−1 during hyperventilation), the reduction in blood flow on lowering of the ankle was also normal. A significant deterioration of the response was found in six diabetics with autonomic neuropathy, including orthostatic hypotension, in whom blood flow increased 23% (range, −35 to +77%). Autoregulation of blood flow, i.e., constancy of blood flow in the ankle region on lowering and elevating of the ankle 20 cm below and above cardiac level was intact in the patients with orthostatic hypotension, indicating a normal vascular smooth muscle function.
In conclusion, in diabetic patients with orthostatic hypotension, the subcutaneous axon reflex is absent. This may be one of several factors responsible for their orthostatic hypotension.