The human immune system is an amazing thing. This powerful network of cells, organs and molecules works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fighting off would-be invaders like bacteria and viruses from wreaking havoc on the body.
Yet sometimes, for reasons not completely understood, this powerhouse of protection makes a mistake and attacks the very cells it is meant to protect. This can lead to a variety of what are known as autoimmune diseases that encompass a vast category of diseases in which a person’s immune system attacks his or her own tissue.
According to American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), the only national nonprofit health agency dedicated to bringing a national focus to autoimmunity, some 50 million Americans suffer from some form of autoimmune disease, with women more likely to be affected than men. The parts of the body affected depend on the type of autoimmune disease and currently, there are 80 t0 100 known types. Some of the most common types include: Celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, psoriasis, lupus, Hashimoto’s disease and Grave’s disease.
Although each autoimmune disease is unique, much of the difficulty in diagnosing them lies in the fact that many of them share the same hallmark symptoms like fatigue, low-grade fever and general ill feeling (malaise). Additionally, symptoms can come and go, and be mild at times and severe at others.
“The initial presenting symptoms can be vague, such as fatigue and muscle aches. Over time more symptoms develop, which makes it easier to diagnose an autoimmune condition,” explained Kimberly Hendricks, DO with Associated Specialists of Internal Medicine in Dayton. Dr. Hendricks specializes in rheumatology.
The more specific symptoms that occur depend upon the disease and location of the abnormal immune response. For example, someone with Type 1 diabetes might exhibit symptoms such as excessive thirst, increased urination and loss or feeling or tingling in the feet.
Dr. Hendricks says that if an autoimmune disorder is suspected, the primary care doctor will likely order laboratory tests and/or imaging studies to get a clearer picture of the situation. However, the whole process can sometimes be quite lengthy.
“Presenting symptoms may be very general in nature as previously discussed, but over time more symptoms develop making the clinical picture clearer,” said Dr. Hendricks. “Another issue is that for many of the autoimmune conditions, there is not a specific test and it is a process of elimination to determine the diagnosis.”
Primary care doctors can then refer a patient to a specialist who treats specific autoimmune diseases. Doctors such as endocrinologists, gastroenterologists, dermatologists, neurologists and rheumatologists like Dr. Hendricks, can help patients to decide on the best course of treatment. Unfortunately, having an autoimmune disorder increases a person’s risk of developing another autoimmune problem. Primary care physicians can be a great help in coordinating care when more than one specialist is involved.
While there are medications available to treat autoimmune disease, the type of medication needed depends on the type of disease, severity of it, and the specific symptoms. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health says that treatments can do the following:
• Relieve symptoms: Over-the-counter drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen can be used for mild pain. Those with more severe symptoms may need a prescription medication to control symptoms such as fatigue, sleep problems and anxiety. Still others may need something as involved as surgery.
• Replace vital substances that the body can no longer make, such as with diabetes (insulin) and thyroid disease (thyroid hormone).
• Suppress the immune system: some drugs suppress the immune system to help control the disease process and preserve organ function. For example, these drugs are used to control inflammation in affected kidneys in people with lupus to keep the kidneys working.
Some patients may also choose to turn to complimentary and alternative medicine to help relieve symptoms. Examples include herbal products, chiropractic, acupuncture and hypnosis. Thankfully, new treatments for autoimmune disease are being studied all the time.
For more information on autoimmune diseases, visit the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association website at www.aarda.org.