Know the Basics: Autoimmune Disorders

What is an autoimmune disorder?

An autoimmune disorder happens when your immune system goes awry and mistakes your body for an intruder. Proper functioning of the immune system ensures that bacteria and other invaders are fought off. With an autoimmune disorder, your body has trouble telling the difference between the stuff that’s part of your body and the stuff that isn’t.

In an effort to protect you from what it perceives as foreign cells, a disordered immune system sends out antibodies to attack and ward off bodily danger, except in doing so, targets the body itself, which, in turn, produces ill effects. Not much is known about why autoimmune disorders develop. Some diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups, and some autoimmune conditions are thought to be triggered by infections or environmental exposure to certain substances.

Many autoimmune disorders have similar symptoms, including:
• General fatigue
• Muscle pain
• Numbness in the extremities
• Rashes
• Swelling and redness (often in the joints)

Autoimmune disorders have no cure, but treatment is possible. Many autoimmune diseases can be controlled with medications that help ease symptoms (e.g., pain relievers to reduce inflammation and aching, topical creams to treat rashes and itching). Immunosuppressants are also used to treat these types of disorders. Naturally, because they limit the function of the body’s immune system, they have serious side effects, and precautions must be made when taking them.

Common Autoimmune Disorders
There are a slew of autoimmune disorders, but here’s a breakdown of some of the most common ones:

Celiac Disease
While the gluten-free trend has gained traction over the years, most people can easily digest gluten without trouble. Those with celiac disease are unable to digest this common protein, and when they do, they experience severe gastrointestinal distress. People with celiac disease often have another autoimmune disorder. The condition also has a significant genetic component. The obvious treatment for celiac is to change up your diet, eliminating foods containing gluten.

This autoimmune disease causes rashes, joint pain, and overwhelming fatigue. The disorder may also produce organ damage. Lupus is actually a term that describes a series of immune disorders that act similarly. Systemic lupus erythematosus is the most common form in this group of diseases. There’s some evidence that lupus has a genetic link. It may also be caused by environmental triggers such as certain viruses. Those diagnosed with lupus control symptoms using a combination of medications such as anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This common autoimmune disorder targets the joints. Achy, throbbing wrists, hands, and knees are all symptoms of this disease that develops in young adults. Treatments for RA include medications, dietary changes (to limit the consumption of inflammation-causing foods), and exercise to improve joint function.

This skin condition causes itchy, scaly patches. Some people with psoriasis also have associated joint paint or have other autoimmune disorders. There’s also some evidence that this skin disease has a genetic component.

Multiple Sclerosis

With this autoimmune disorder, antibodies attack the body’s neurological system, specifically the myelin sheath. Symptoms include muscle weakness, difficulty walking, and numbness in certain parts of the body. The most common form of MS is called relapsing-remitting MS, where the disease flares up then goes nearly or entirely dormant for a period. RRMS does not progress like other forms of the disease. There is no cure for MS, but MS-specific medications do exist. They’re used to control the flare-ups and symptoms of the disease. There’s no clear answer as to what causes the disorder, but some researchers believe environmental triggers may cause the immune system to turn on itself.

While this neurological condition is still not fully understood, there’s some belief that migraines are a type of autoimmune disease. Those with migraines experience severe headaches, often accompanied by other neurological symptoms such as sensitivity to light and sound. Other symptoms include visual aura, nausea and vomiting, and fatigue. There is no cure for migraines, but medications exist that allow migraineurs to live with the condition. Many migraine medications, however, have significant side effects and were initially developed to treat other conditions. The newest treatment option involves a class of drugs called calcitonin gene-related peptides, which have been designed expressly for treating migraines.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease
IBS encompasses multiple disorders that affect the lining of the intestines. Inflammation (as a result of a disordered immune system) causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the most common forms of IBS. Genetics are thought to play a role in whether or not a person develops the disease. Risk factors for IBS include ethnicity (common in Caucasians and Ashkenazi Jews) and age (the condition usually presents before 35).

Written by: Steph Coelho

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