The Valsalva maneuver is a simple test of autonomically-mediated cardiovascular reflexes, comprising forced expiration against resistance ("straining"), followed by release of the resistance and completion of expiration. The first phase produces impaired cardiac filling due to impaired venous return as a consequence of elevated intrathoracic pressure, with a fall in cardiac output and blood pressure, inducing peripheral vasoconstriction (sympathetic pathways) to maintain blood pressure. The second phase causes a transient overshoot in blood pressure as the restored cardiac output is ejected into a constricted circulation, followed by reflex slowing of heart rate.
In autonomic (sympathetic) dysfunction, reflex vasoconstriction, blood pressure overshoot and bradycardia do not occur. The latter may be conveniently assessed by measuring R-R intervals in a prolonged ECG recording, an R-R interval ratio between the straining and release phases of less than 1.1 suggesting impaired baroreceptor response.