What Is an Autoimmune Disease?

One of the most important parts of your body is your immune system which helps fight off disease and infection. Without your immune function, you could easily perish from something as inconsequential as a slight scratch or the common cold. The immune system keeps you safe from foreign pathogens by using a sophisticated recognition function that differentiates harmful materials from beneficial ones.

However, if your immune system malfunctions, then it may mistake some beneficial cells for harmful ones. Autoimmune diseases result from your immune system mis-identifying healthy cells for dangerous intruders. This can produce damage to almost any tissue in the human body. No one understands why autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis occur, but there are therapies that can slow the progress of many of these conditions.

Autoimmune Diseases in the United States

There are more than 80 varieties of autoimmune diseases, many of which are chronic conditions, debilitating or even, potentially fatal.  In the U.S., more than 24 million people suffer from an autoimmune disorder, with 8 million others who possess auto-antibodies a precursor for autoimmune disease.

Although the exact causes of autoimmune diseases are not known, research strongly suggests that it is a combination of genetics and environment. We know that heredity plays a major role because many autoimmune diseases are more likely to occur in women or members of a family. Evidence also points to environmental factors like viruses, bacteria and even nutrition influencing the onset of some autoimmune disorders.

The most common autoimmune diseases include

  • Rheumatoid arthritis—like all arthritic diseases, rheumatoid arthritis attacks the joints, causing pain and inflammation, but unlike most other arthritic conditions, RA is an autoimmune disease that may also affect the skin, eyes, lungs or blood vessels. It is very important to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis as soon as possible so that treatments can be applied to slow joint damage.
  • Lupus—this autoimmune condition can attack the lungs, heart, joints, skin, kidneys and brain. Lupus is more common among women and often presents with a butterfly-shaped rash on the face as well as fatigue, fever, joint pain, skin lesions, and sensitivity to light.
  • Psoriatic arthritis—as with any arthritic condition, psoriatic arthritis produces joint pain, inflammation and stiffness. In addition to joint symptoms, patients may also develop psoriasis as well as symptoms affecting any other part of the body.
  • including conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease causes the immune system to attack the gastrointestinal tract. This chronic inflammation may produce persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloody stools, weight loss and fatigue.

Diagnosing an Autoimmune Disease

If you suspect that you have an autoimmune disease, you should see your physician as soon as possible so that you can be properly diagnosed and immediately begin treatment. Diagnosing an autoimmune disease is not a simple process because there is no single test to confirm a type of autoimmune condition. In most cases, many tests will need to be performed to determine if certain blood markers are present. Some patients may require a tissue biopsy to confirm a diagnosis.

One of the reasons why diagnosing an autoimmune disease is so difficult is that they masquerade as many other similar conditions. The most common symptoms of an autoimmune disease include

  • Recurring fever
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Skin problems
  • Digestive issues
  • Swollen glands

Given that these symptoms are common to many ailments, it is difficult to immediately identify an autoimmune disease as the cause.

Your doctor may ask you about certain aspects of your medical history because the presence of certain risk factors can point to an autoimmune disorder.

  • Family history—if one or more members of your family has an autoimmune disease like lupus or multiple sclerosis, then there is an elevated risk that you also could develop the condition.
  • Obesity—being overweight increases the chances of developing certain autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis. Obesity produces more strain on the joints which causes inflammation, a known trigger for some autoimmune diseases.
  • Tobacco use—smoking has been linked to multiple sclerosis, lupus, hyperthyroidism, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Medications—some medications have been known to induce autoimmune disorders. Drugs like antibiotics, blood pressure medications and statins can produce mild or serious autoimmune diseases.

Managing an Autoimmune Disorder

Modern medicine still does not have a way to cure autoimmune dysfunctions, but there are ways to slow the progress of the disease and minimize damage to your tissues and organs. There are three primary pharmacological strategies to treat autoimmune diseases:

  • Immunosuppressant drugs—this class of drugs inhibits the efficacy of the immune system and is often used to treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. There are some potentially serious side effects including infection; because your immune system is suppressed, you are more vulnerable to foreign pathogens.
  • Biologics—these drugs target the mechanism of autoimmune diseases. For example, lupus is 15 times more prevalent in women, so there is work underway to identify why men are more resistant and to develop a therapy that mimics that mechanism in lupus patients.
  • Symptom relief—the final way that drugs are used are to treat the specific symptoms that are the most problematic. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs like ibuprofen or aspirin are commonly used to treat joint pain.

In addition to drugs, your doctor may also recommend the following therapies:

  • Exercise—because joint damage is so common in autoimmune disease patients, many physicians recommend low-impact exercises like yoga or Tai Chi to maintain joint health.
  • Diet—your diet can play a large role in disease progression. In general, you should eat foods that are low in calories and high in nutrients so that you can maintain a healthy weight that limits inflammation.
  • Lower stress—a recent study concluded that stress may play a major role in the onset of some autoimmune diseases. Although there is still a lack of evidence that stress may aggravate an autoimmune condition, it is wise to lower your stress levels whenever you are battling a chronic condition.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.