What are Autoimmune Diseases?
A healthy immune system works by recognizing foreign substances (antigens) and getting rid of them. In this way, the immune system protects the body from bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. However, for unknown reasons, sometimes the immune system begins to attack the body instead of protecting it. Autoimmune disease happens when the immune system is unable to recognize the difference between antigens and your own cells, and mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.
There are over 100 types of autoimmune diseases, and they can affect different types of tissues and almost every organ in the body. Over 23.5 million Americans have an autoimmune disease, with the majority of those (almost 80%) being women.
Even though there is a wide variety of autoimmune diseases, and specific symptoms depend on the type of disease, they often share similar symptoms. These could include fatigue, joint pain and swelling, skin problems, digestive issues, and more.
Autoimmune disease does not affect all patients the same way. In one person, symptoms might be severe, while another person may experience more mild symptoms. The severity of the symptoms a patient experiences likely depends on factors such as genetics, environment, and their own health history.
It can be difficult to obtain a diagnosis for a specific type of autoimmune disease, since there is no single test to determine which type you may have. Sometimes, a diagnosis is made by ruling out other autoimmune diseases. Other times, your doctor may identify the type of autoimmune disease based on your symptoms, specific blood markers, and more rarely, a tissue biopsy.
What is a Rheumatologist?
Depending on the type of autoimmune disease you have or are suspected to have, your healthcare provider may refer you to a specialist. For example, if you have an autoimmune disease affecting the digestive tract, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist.
A rheumatologist is an internal medicine physician who deals with diseases of the joints and muscles. You may commonly associate them with rheumatoid arthritis, however, they treat a broad range of conditions. They have specialized training in musculoskeletal conditions originating from autoimmune diseases and inflammatory (rheumatic) disorders. Since all autoimmune diseases can cause inflammation of the joints (arthritis), rheumatologists are considered experts in this field of study.
Since joint damage can occur in some rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, an evaluation by a rheumatologist should not be delayed. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent irreversible joint damage, and give better long-term results.
Common Autoimmune Diseases
Some common autoimmune diseases include:
This form of arthritis attacks the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common form of autoimmune arthritis. Symptoms include pain and swelling of the joints, typically in the wrist and small bones of the hands and feet.
Symptoms of this disease (systemic lupus erythematosus) include inflammation and swelling, joint pain, fever, skin rashes, and issues with internal organs. While a chronic condition, these symptoms come and go in waves, often referred to as flare-ups. It is more prevalent in women, typically between the ages of 15 and 45, the reproductive years. The cause of lupus is unknown, but the hormone estrogen is thought to be a factor in this condition.
This is a complex disorder, affecting the digestive system and several internal organs. The immune system causes damage to the bowel and small intestine. It is triggered by a protein called gluten that is found in grains such as wheat, barely, and rye. Specific markers in the blood can confirm a diagnosis of celiac disease.
Named for Henry Sjörgen, the doctor who first described this autoimmune disorder, Sjörgen’s syndrome affects the tear system in your eyes and salivary glands in your mouth. It causes extremely dry eyes and mouth, and in some cases, patients experience whole body muscle and joint pain.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. It causes damage to the nerve fibers, which disrupts communication between the brain and body. MS can potentially be a disabling disease, however, the severity of the symptoms depend on the amount of nerve damage and which nerves are affected.
This inflammatory disorder causes muscle pain and stiffness, particularly in the shoulders, upper arms, and hips. The pain is typically worse in the mornings or after a period of rest, and tends to improve with activity. It would be rare to see this condition in someone under 50 years of age, and it usually affects people over 65.
This inflammatory disease is a rare type of arthritis that tends to affect men more than women, and onset typically occurs in late adolescence or early adulthood. Inflammation in the spincan eventually cause some of the small bones forming the backbone (vertebrae) to fuse, making the spine inflexible and resulting in a hunched posture.
Type 1 Diabetes
This chronic condition prevents your pancreas from making insulin, due to the immune system destroying the insulin-producing (islet) cells in the pancreas. Blood sugar levels need to be managed with insulin injections and regular monitoring. It used to be known as juvenile diabetes, though it can affect both children and adults, and insulin-dependent diabetes.