Imagine: your body is attacking itself from the inside. At first, symptoms are infrequent and not specific, but then they become unbearable and interfere with your life. You see doctor after doctor who can’t explain why you feel the way you do. When the disease becomes acute and you receive a diagnosis, you learn the truth: you have an autoimmune disorder.
More than 100 autoimmune disorders affect approximately 23.5 million Americans and that number continues to rise, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“If we can better understand autoimmune diseases and why they occur in the first place, we can then focus on prevention and risk reduction.”
What causes autoimmune disorders? “Frankly, we are not completely sure, and no simple answer exists. Many disorders seem to run in families, suggesting an inherited or genetic risk, and a few genes are associated with a higher risk of developing an autoimmune disease,” says Avis Ware, MD, a UC Health rheumatologist and immunologist at West Chester Hospital, and professor of medicine for the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
“In general, a rheumatologist typically suggests a combination of medications to help decrease symptoms, prevent organ damage and slow progression of disease. A few of these diseases are life threatening if the correct medications are not initiated promptly,” says Dr. Ware. “Most of our diseases, however, are chronic and require a multimodality approach, which includes not only medications but also adopting healthier lifestyles.”
Dr. Ware recommends to patients that they get plenty of rest, quit smoking, adopt an anti-inflammatory diet (the Mediterranean diet is optimal), and do moderate amounts of exercise. Although autoimmune disorders cannot be cured, medicine has come a long way in disease management and helping patients live longer, healthier and active lives.
“It’s important that patients find a doctor that they feel comfortable with, as both the patient and physician will have to work together – often for several years – to manage their disease correctly,” says Dr. Ware.
Fortunately, researchers are tirelessly working on learning more about these diseases. The NIH states that 80 to 100 autoimmune diseases have been discovered, and they suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an autoimmune basis.
“Multiple unknown factors – and especially environmental factors – are associated with the development of an autoimmune disorder. For example, there appears to be an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in cigarette smokers.”
Multiple autoimmune disorders are found within the field of rheumatology, such as rheumatoid arthritis and related inflammatory arthropathies (diseases of the joints). Other disorders include:
• Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs.
• Psoriatic Arthritis, arthritis affecting people who have the skin condition, psoriasis.
• Ankylosing Spondylitis, arthritis of the spine.
• Vasculitis, rare diseases that cause inflammation of blood vessels.
• Polymyositis and Dermatomyositis (PM/DM), chronic inflammation of the muscles.
• Scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease.
• Mixed connective tissue disease, a rare autoimmune disorder featuring symptoms of three different disorders: lupus, scleroderma and polymyositis.
• Sjögren’s syndrome, a disorder that presents as dry eyes and a dry mouth.
• Gout, severely painful arthritis.