Last updated date: 11-Feb-2023
Originally Written in English
Here is what you should know about Autoimmune Disorders
Autoimmune disorders can be dangerous and devastating if not diagnosed and treated properly. They are caused by a dysfunction in the body's immune system, in which the immune system is triggered to attack and destroy healthy tissue. The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown, but they seem to occur when several factors, including genetic predisposition and environmental factors, such as a virus, come together. There is no cure for autoimmune disorders, but some can be managed with medication or tackled through lifestyle changes. This article explores what autoimmune disorders are, common signs and symptoms, and diagnosis protocols.
What is the Immune system?
The human body often contacts foreign substances known as antigens, having the ability to cause various diseases and worsen medical conditions. In order to protect the body, there are several defense mechanisms in place such as skin (it secretes oils that have the power to kill bacteria), lungs (the mucous inside them traps foreign particles and helps the body to cough them out), digestive tract (the mucous includes antibodies and the acid inside the stomach is able to kill microbes), saliva and tears (they contain antibacterial enzymes). But the most important defense mechanism of the body is the immune system.
Being defined as a complex network of biological processes composed of different organs, cells, and chemicals, the immune system works against these substances in order to protect the organism and maintain a healthy, well-functioning body. Its main components are white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus and the bone marrow, all of them playing a part in the processes of the immune system.
- White blood cells, generated in the bone marrow, play an important role in the immune system, continuously searching for microbes in order to attack them and restore a well-functioning body. Lymphocytes (B-cells, T-cells, natural killer cells) among multiple types of immune cells ‘travel’ through blood and tissue to find these foreign invaders.
- Antibodies function by identifying the unknown microorganisms using the toxic substances they produce and marking them for destruction.
- The complement system includes proteins that assist and help the processes of antibodies.
- The lymphatic system is made of lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and lymphocytes (white blood cells), all working together in order to achieve goals related to protecting the human body. They help by responding to bacteria, cancer cells and other invaders that may lead to various diseases.
- The spleen is an organ playing a vital role in eliminating microbes from the human body. In addition to that, it generates essential parts of the immune system, such as antibodies and lymphocytes.
- The bone marrow is within the bones, and its main purpose is producing white blood cells, as well as red blood cells that help carry oxygen throughout the body.
- The thymus helps keep track of the blood content and produce T-lymphocytes.
- When a microorganism or a foreign substance invades the human body, the main priorities of the immune system are identifying it and responding to it the proper way, by producing antibodies or sensitized lymphocytes, attacking and eliminating it from the body.
Common disorders of the Immune system
An unusual activity of the immune system may lead to various diseases and medical conditions, whether the immune system is overactive or underactive.
- When the immune system tends to be overactive, complications such as allergic diseases and autoimmune diseases may occur. Allergic diseases are very common, due to intense responses of the human body to allergens. These are experienced in multiple forms such as allergies to food or medications, hay fever, allergic asthma, eczema, and other medical conditions. On the other hand, autoimmune disorders happen when the immune system unusually reacts to normal body cells, not making a difference between its own cells and foreign invaders. There are more than 80 known types of autoimmune disorders affecting a large variety of body parts. For instance, some of these diseases are autoimmune thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic vasculitis, diabetes (type 1) and others.
- On the contrary, underactivity of the immune system (known as immunodeficiency) leads to difficulties in the processes of the immune system that does not function properly, causing high risks of infections and developing different diseases. The underactivity of the immune system can be caused by other diseases (for example, specific types of cancer) and certain medical treatments, such as chemotherapy and others.
What are Autoimmune disorders?
As mentioned above, the immune system protects the human body against invaders such as bacteria, different types of viruses, cancer cells, or other toxins containing antigens by generating antibodies that are meant to destroy the dangerous substances and eliminate them from the body. Autoimmune diseases are the result of the immune system mistakenly confusing the healthy cells of the body with foreign cells, which causes attacking the actual organism instead.
Causes of Autoimmune disorders
Even though the exact cause of this type of medical disorder remains unknown, there are certain factors that can increase the risks of developing them, including certain medicines, smoking, exposure to toxic environments and obesity. In addition to that, they can be inherited, meaning that having family relatives suffering from autoimmune diseases expands the chances of development. Studies show that already having an autoimmune disease may lead to manifesting different ones, which is why an individual may suffer from multiple autoimmune disorders at the same time.
As 78% of the people suffering from these disorders are female, women tend to have a higher risk level of developing autoimmune disorders. Considering that, the most common autoimmune diseases in females are the following: rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, lupus and thyroid diseases (whether the body creates too little or too much thyroid hormone- hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism).
Symptoms of Autoimmune disorders
As there are numerous types of autoimmune diseases, symptoms may vary from one disorder to another. Despite that, many of them share symptoms that are quite similar. Some of the most common symptoms of autoimmune diseases are feeling exhausted or generally tired, having swollen and painful joints, repeating low-grade fevers, experiencing abdominal pain as well as digestive issues, swollen glands and developing skin problems such as skin rashes. Other symptoms include redness, achy muscles, hair loss, trouble concentrating and numbness and tingling in the extreme parts of the body, the hands and feet. However, any of these may be symptoms of other medical conditions, meaning it is not 100% necessary for them to be signs of autoimmune diseases in particular. Sometimes symptoms are barely observable to mild, but they may also be very intense in severe cases, depending on the degree of the autoimmune disorder.
Different types of autoimmune diseases affect different organs or tissue types, the most common areas being the blood vessels, red blood cells, the connective tissues, the endocrine glands (for example, the thyroid or the pancreas), the joints, muscles and last but not least, the skin. However, one autoimmune system may affect more than one body part at once.
The most common Autoimmune disorders
As specified above, there are more than eighty known autoimmune diseases, including the following disorders with their specific presentations:
- Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease caused by an unusual reaction of the body’s natural defense system against pancreatic cells. The pancreas is an organ that produces a hormone called insulin, playing a crucial role in the process of regulating the sugar levels in the blood. Type 1 diabetes mellitus is described as the immune system attacking insulin-producing cells in the pancreas in order to destroy them, damaging the blood vessels and contributing to an odd functioning of other organs (kidneys, heart, eyes). Complications may include other autoimmune disorders.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects the joints, causing inflammation, redness and soreness of multiple joints at the same time. In addition to that, this inflammatory disease may affect other body parts as well, such as skin, lungs, eyes, heart and others. Unlike other medical disorders causing joint issues, rheumatoid arthritis may start even earlier than the age of 30.
- Reactive arthritis is typically targeting the lower human body (mostly feet, knees and ankles), reactive arthritis occurs due to an infection in a different part of the body, such as the intestines or the urinary tract. Its symptoms are similar to the ones of rheumatoid arthritis, including swelling and pain of the joints.
- Psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis- generally known as a skin disease, psoriasis causes inflammation and red marks on the surface of the skin (typically on the knees and elbows, as well as the scalp), due to an unusual rapid multiplication of skin cells. When it is accompanied by symptoms such as swollen and painful joints, the disorder is medically known as psoriatic arthritis.
- Addison’s disease, also called adrenal insufficiency, is triggered by a deficiency of the hormones named cortisol and aldosterone produced by the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys. As the insufficiency leads to an unusual usage and storage of glucose and carbohydrates, symptoms are typically weakness and feeling fatigued, low blood sugar and, in some cases, weight loss.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)- this disease mostly affects the central nervous system, damaging the protective layer around nerve cells called the myelin sheath, causing delays in the process of communication between the human brain or spinal cord and the other body parts. The main symptom of this autoimmune disorder involves having difficulties in walking or other types of movements due to low capacity of keeping balance, weakness, and numbness.
- Graves’ disease- mainly attacking the thyroid located at the base of the neck, Graves’ disease causes the gland to produce a higher, unhealthy amount of hormones that play an essential role in metabolism (the way the human body uses energy). Too much of these hormones cause various symptoms such as uncommonly rapid heartbeat, unexpected weight loss, heat intolerance, also having psychological effects (for example, nervousness).
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis- opposed to Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is caused by an insufficiency of hormones produced by the thyroid, causing weight gain and vulnerability to cold temperatures. Other symptoms may be tiredness, hair loss and lastly, unusual swelling of the thyroid gland.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)- previously considered a simple skin disease due to its symptoms including skin rashes, systemic lupus erythematosus has multiple effects on other organs such as joints, brain, heart and kidneys. Similar to other autoimmune diseases described above, its main symptoms are painful joints and fatigue.
- Sjogren’s syndrome- affecting the mouth and the eyes, this disease attacks the producers of tears and saliva, essential lubrication for these organs, causing them to become dry. However, Sjogren’s syndrome might include effects regarding the joints and skin as well.
- Dermatomyositis- this rare autoimmune disorder affects both human skin and muscles, causing red skin rashes, especially around the eyes and muscle weakness, inflammation and swelling of the arms and legs.
- Myasthenia gravis- as the brain is strongly linked to the other organs in order to control their activity, Myasthenia gravis damages the communication between the brain and the body muscles. Due to this miscommunication, muscles do not receive the necessary signals for them to contract, which leads to muscle weakness. In some cases, this includes muscles that control facial motions ( for example, eye movements).
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)- it affects the gastrointestinal tract, causing certain parts of it to inflame. Inflammatory bowel disease is a term used for two separate conditions called Crohn’s disease, which is the inflammation that may appear in any component of the gastrointestinal tract and Ulcerative colitis which only inflames the lining of the large intestine and the rectum).
- Pernicious anemia- the stomach lining cells produce the intrinsic factor (a protein) that helps the human body absorb a nutrient called cobalamin (generally known as Vitamin B12) from natural food sources. Pernicious anemia generates an insufficiency of this essential vitamin, causing the development of anemia and modifications in the process of DNA synthesis. This autoimmune disorder is most common among older adults.
- Celiac disease- when this disorder occurs, the immune system attacks the human body as a reaction to consuming gluten (a dietary protein naturally found in cereals such as wheat, rye and barley), leading to damage of the small intestine. The main symptoms of Celiac disease are diarrhea mixed with abdominal pain and bloating, as well as indigestion, constipation and other gastrointestinal conditions. In addition, this autoimmune disorder may cause more general symptoms: fatigue due to insufficiency of nutrients, unexpected weight loss, itchy skin rashes, and even infertility.
- Autoimmune vasculitis- this condition affects the blood vessels (arteries, veins, and capillaries) that transport blood throughout the body from the heart to different organs and back, causing them to inflame and narrow. The remarkable symptoms are unexpected fever and weight loss (often accompanied by appetite loss), tiredness and general pain in the body. The intensity of the symptoms may vary depending on the severity of the disease. Other noticeable signs of autoimmune vasculitis affect the skin (itchiness, unusual red spots, bumps and bruises), lungs (feeling out of breath), eyes (uncommon sensitivity to light or unclear vision), joints (swelling and pain), brain (psychological issues, difficulties in thinking clearly), nerves (weakness sensed in certain body parts) and other components of the human body. In more severe cases, the condition may lead to damage of certain organs, even causing the arteries, veins, or capillaries to close off, not allowing the blood to be properly carried throughout the body.
- Guillain-Barre syndrome- when this autoimmune disorder occurs, nerves controlling legs and arms are mistakenly attacked by the immune system, causing weakness.
The symptoms listed above are not only specific signs of autoimmune disorders. There are, of course, multiple various medical conditions that are not autoimmune that may include very similar symptoms.
However, there are some diseases that are linked to autoimmune disorders, increasing the risk of developing them. For instance, endometriosis is a female-specific chronic medical condition that is not classified by professionals as being an autoimmune disorder. This occurs when the tissue inside the uterus grows outside, expanding to the ovaries, abdominal area and bowel. Generally, this causes inflammations and bleeding, intense abdominal cramps and pelvic pain leading to longer, heavier menstrual flow, nausea, urinary issues and lastly, infertility. It is a very common condition, affecting one in ten women in the United States.
As inflammation is a common symptom of endometriosis (causing unusual immune reactions), even though it is not listed as an autoimmune disorder, it may be connected to autoimmune conditions. For example, some of these are celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Sjogren syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus and multiple sclerosis. According to several studies, links to specific types of cancer have also been discovered (ovarian cancer, skin cancer or breast cancer). Other autoimmune disorders may be developed due to having endometriosis (rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism, etc.).
The particular causes of this disorder are unknown, but suffering from an autoimmune disorder may increase the risk of development. At the same time, genetics may play an important role as well.
Diagnose of Autoimmune disorders
As the symptoms of autoimmune diseases are not very specific, consulting a specialist is the most proper option while experiencing them. A medical professional is the one to confirm an accurate diagnosis. Depending on the type of disorder and affected parts of the body, specialists that may help are rheumatologists (medical experts in diseases targeting the joints, such as SLE or Sjogren syndrome), dermatologists (when it comes to conditions affecting the skin-psoriasis and others), endocrinologists (Graves’ disease, Addison’s disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, general disorders attacking glands) and gastroenterologists (for conditions involving the gastrointestinal tract- Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease).
When it comes to testing, there is no unique test that accurately diagnoses autoimmune disorders. Medical professionals may run different combinations of tests depending on the patient’s particular symptoms, as well as a physical examination. However, the first test that is usually run in cases of suspected autoimmune diseases is the antinuclear antibody test (ANA). The results are not very specific because a positive result does not indicate the type of disease, but it may confirm the existence of an autoimmune disorder triggering the immune system. Other useful tests in determining the diagnosis of autoimmune disorders include autoantibody tests, comprehensive metabolic panel, C-reactive protein (CRP), and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR). Using the antinuclear antibody test in combination with multiple other tests searching for specific antibodies, experienced symptoms, and possibly non-specific medical examinations, professionals can offer a complete diagnosis.
Treatment of Autoimmune disorders
Even though there is no absolute cure for autoimmune diseases, special treatments are designed to calm the unusual responses of the immune system and decrease the intensity of the symptoms. After a professional diagnosis, specialists prescribe certain medications in order to reduce inflammations, pain levels, swelling, fatigue and different skin-related symptoms. Some of the drugs used in the treatment plans of autoimmune disorders are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, naproxen) and immune-suppressing pharmaceuticals.
While experiencing autoimmune disorders, specialists recommend maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including a well proportioned and balanced diet and regular exercise.
Complications of autoimmune disorders
Like any other medical condition, a lack of treatment may lead to serious complications. Other than general nerve and organ damage, these include:
- Cancer – as individuals suffering from autoimmune diseases already have a weak immune system, there is a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers, including breast cancer and lymphoma.
- Heart disease – multiple autoimmune disorders that cause inflammation (for example, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus) may result in damaging the heart muscle due to the thickening of the blood vessels called arteries. It is recommended to keep a heart-friendly dietary plan and exercise regularly.
- Psychological effects - mood irregularities and psychological disorders such as depression can be developed due to typical symptoms of autoimmune diseases, including chronic pain and exhaustion or fatigue. Contacting a professional is the best option when symptoms are severely intense.
- Blood clots – there is an increased risk of formation of blood clots in the lungs, leading to hospitalization. Sedentary patients suffering from multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune disorders may develop blood clots in the legs, targeting to move towards the lungs.
- Other autoimmune diseases – it is known that suffering from an autoimmune disorder may lead to developing different ones. Generally, having more than three medical conditions related to the natural defense system of the body is called multiple autoimmune syndromes.
Autoimmune disorders occur when healthy body cells are mistakenly attacked by the immune system due to the confusion in distinguishing normal body cells and foreign invaders. There are more than 80 known autoimmune disorders, most of them having similar symptoms such as inflammation and pain, fatigue, swollen and painful joints, and skin rashes. These symptoms may overlap, making it difficult to diagnose accurately. Consulting a medical professional while experiencing signs of autoimmune disorders is the best option because special treatments can reduce the intensity of the symptoms and prevent severe complications.