Definition & Overview

The body’s immune system is designed to fight foreign and dangerous substances called antigens and prevent them from causing damage to tissue and organs. However, the cells of the body also contain antigens, and the immune system is supposed to be able to differentiate between the body’s natural antigens and foreign antigens that can cause trouble. Unfortunately, if the immune system has problems, it fails to differentiate between the two.

Problems with the immune system are referred to as autoimmune disorders. In an autoimmune disorder, the immune system begins to attack the body’s own cells, causing inflammation to the tissue.

There are quite a number of autoimmune disorders. Some of the most common are rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and grave’s disease.

Exactly what triggers the immune system to attack the body’s own cells remains a mystery. There are some theories, but although the theory may prove to be true to some people, it turns out false in others. For instance, foreign substances that are similar to those produced or occur naturally in the body may become a trigger in some people, but other people’s immune system will still be able to tell the difference.

Cause of Condition

The exact causes of autoimmune disorders are unknown. However, experts believe that drugs, viruses, some types of bacteria, and the genetic buildup of a person may contribute to the condition.

Even though experts have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause of autoimmune disorders, the results are well known. These types of disorders cause destruction of body tissue, changes in the function of an organ, or changes in the formation of the organ.

Although an autoimmune disorder may affect any part of the body, the parts that are most affected are the blood vessels, muscles, joints, connective tissues, skin, red blood cells, and endocrine glands.

There are times when a disorder affects more than one body part. In fact, it is possible for a person to be affected by more than just one autoimmune disorder at the same time.

Key Symptoms

The symptoms of autoimmune disorders vary depending on the organ or tissue that is being attacked by the immune system. However, the symptoms of some autoimmune disorders may also be similar, which makes it difficult to diagnose the type of disorder and provide the correct treatment.

Some of the most common symptoms are joint pains, fever, rashes, fatigue, and a general feeling of illness. If the joints are severely affected, it will be likely that the patient will experience joint deformity as well.

An abnormally functioning immune system can attack any organ in the body, including the heart, brain, kidneys, and lungs. In some cases, it may attack more than just one organ. If this happens, the patient will display more symptoms.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

Since the symptoms of autoimmune disorders are similar to many types of illnesses, most patients consult their family doctors with the mindset that it may be some form of viral or bacterial infection. Only after performing several tests and analyzing the condition will the doctor be able to provide a diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder.

The most common diagnostic tests are antinuclear antibody tests, complete blood count (CBC), c-reactive protein (CRP), urinalysis, erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), comprehensive metabolic panel, and autoantibody tests.

It’s important to understand that even though a doctor may be able to determine that the underlying condition is an autoimmune system disorder, the only available treatment for the condition is to relieve the symptoms. The doctor will also attempt to suppress the immune system by using certain types of medications.

Doctors will usually prescribe supplements to replace substances that the body may lack. For instance, vitamin B12, insulin, and thyroid hormones are some of the most common substances that the body needs when a person has an autoimmune disorder. Supplements will help the body function normally and fight the disease.

As autoimmune disorders may also affect the blood, some patients may require blood transfusions in addition to supplements and other types of medications.

Apart from blood transfusions, the doctor may also opt to perform a procedure called plasma exchange. This procedure involves filtering the person’s blood to remove abnormal proteins and autoantibodies. Once these have been removed, the blood is returned to the patient.

If the muscles and joints are affected, the person’s mobility will also diminish. In such cases, the doctor will recommend physical therapy to improve the person’s ability to function within the society.

An overactive and abnormal immune system will continue to attack healthy tissue and organs, which is why doctors mostly opt to prescribe immunosuppressive medications, such as corticosteroids and non-steroidal drugs.

Treatments for autoimmune disorders are usually effective. These help control the symptoms so that the patient will function with some degree of normality. However, there will be times when the symptoms may get worse, but eventually subside again. These periods are called flare-ups. If you experience a flare-up, you should call your doctor so that the condition can be controlled as much as possible.

Even though treatments for an autoimmune disease are only designed to control the symptoms and suppress the immune system, these are better than not receiving treatment at all. In fact, if an autoimmune disorder is left untreated, it can lead to more serious complications and even death. The person will also run a higher risk of infections.

Although there’s a saying that prevention is better than cure, unfortunately, autoimmune disorders cannot be prevented, mostly because the exact cause is unknown. Nevertheless, living a healthy lifestyle by eating a healthy diet and doing regular exercise will build up the body’s resistance. Should there be a problem with the immune system, a patient with a healthier body should be able to manage the condition better than those who already have health problems.

References:

  • Goronzy JJ, Weyand CM. The innate and adaptive immune systems. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 44.

  • Kono DH, Theofilopoulos AN. Autoimmunity. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, et al, eds. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 20.

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