Normally, it does a remarkable job of defending against disease-causing microorganisms. But sometimes it fails: A germ invades successfully and makes you sick. While we don’t know what causes the immune system to go awry, we do know that women have twice the risk of men, and certain ethnicities (primarily African-American, Asian, and Latino) are more likely to develop an autoimmune disorder. There’s also a genetic component; if you have an immediate family member with one type of autoimmune disorder, you may be at risk for a completely different one. Unfortunately, those that have been diagnosed with any autoimmune disorder are at an increased risk for another. In fact, 25% of all people with an autoimmune condition will eventually be diagnosed with one or more additional disorders.
There are more than 100 different autoimmune disorders, and the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association estimates that up to 50 million Americans suffer from at least one – although many may not be diagnosed. The disorders are diverse, and include everything from celiac, Grave’s disease and endometriosis to lupus, alopecia, and narcolepsy. And, since every organ or system in the body can be affected, it makes diagnosing them particularly difficult.
Rheumatoid arthritis, one of the best know autoimmune disorders, occurs when an abnormal immune system response triggers joint inflammation and damage, but is often misdiagnosed as osteoarthritis – a completely unrelated condition. With multiple sclerosis, the immune system attacks nerve cells, causing weakness, muscle spasm, blindness and more, but is often misdiagnosed as depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, or a host of other conditions. Many people are surprised to learn that Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, caused when antibodies from the immune system attack the pancreas and destroy the insulin producing cells. But early flu-like symptoms and extreme fatigue can easily be mistaken for colds or flu.
With so many vague and overlapping symptoms, it’s no wonder up to 40% of people with auto immune diseases are originally misdiagnosed. But a correct diagnosis and early treatment are critical to slowing permanent damage and managing the symptoms and debilitating effects, so it’s important to know your family history and discuss it with your doctor. Tracking all of your systems can also help your doctor identify possible causes for further testing. And, while no one blood test will show if you have an autoimmune disease, there are many antibodies that can be identified and used, along with symptoms, to help pinpoint a diagnosis. The process may be frustrating and time-consuming, so it’s important to be persistent until an accurate diagnosis is confirmed.
Once diagnosed, most people work with a specialist, such as a rheumatologist, gastroenterologist, endocrinologist, or dermatologist to treat and manage their autoimmune disease. Treatments can include lifestyle changes, anti-inflammatories and pain medications, and immune-suppressing drugs. Autoimmune disorders can’t be cured, but patients may experience months or even years of relief when the disease goes into remission.
Symptoms of autoimmune diseases are easy to ignore or chalk up to stress or just getting older. But if you have persistent symptoms, or symptoms that are getting worse, it’s time to see your doctor. Find a doctor that meets your needs, or call the El Camino Health Line at 650-684-5285 for a referral.
This article first appeared in the February 2018 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter and in the Fall 2018 issue of Chinese Health Initiative Wellness eNewsletter. Learn more about the Chinese Health Initiative.