Autoimmune Disorder: Symptoms, Tests and Treatments

Dr. Nikhil Eric Saldanha

January 24, 2022

Your immune system fights all the viruses and bacteria that enter your body. A robust immune system protects you from disease and infection. It can usually identify the harmful germs in the cells of your body. However, it can sometimes get confused about what it should attack. Autoimmune disorder are diseases where your immune system has begun to attack the healthy cells of your organs and tissues. 

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders. They can affect any part of your body. Examples: 

  • Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas as a result of immune cells attacking them
  • Alopecia areata attacks the skin cells and causes hair loss
  • Autoimmune Hepatitis negatively impacts liver functioning
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE, affects the entire body.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis affects many joints in our body – especially our fingers. 

We need to be more aware of these diseases and do something about them sooner. Prevention is always better than cure. So, let’s find out what it is and how this works, before jumping to preventive care. 

Why does the Immune System Attack Our Body?

There is no exact known cause for the immune system to misbehave. Yet, some individuals are more likely to have an autoimmune disease than others. In addition, a few autoimmune diseases are more susceptible in some ethnic groups than others. Though the dependency factor varies, the underlying mechanism that causes this disease is predicted to be  genetic variation and environment.

For example, lupus refers to various conditions which cause inflammation to the skin, joints and even internal organs. This disease is more common in African-Americans and Hispanic individuals than Caucasians. In addition, some conditions like multiple sclerosis are hereditary. Though not every family member is inclined to have this condition, some of them might inherit a vulnerability to an autoimmune disease.

With the rising prevalence of autoimmune diseases, researchers suspect environmental factors like infections and exposure to solvents or chemicals can also contribute. 

A “Western diet” is another possible reason for autoimmune disease. Consuming foods rich in fat, sugar, and highly processed foods are associated with inflammation that may trigger an immune response. Although, there needs to be more conclusive evidence.

Autoimmune Disorders: Symptoms

There are 80 known autoimmune diseases, and the symptoms’ prevalence, incidence and disease severity is uncertain. But some of the symptoms are common in most autoimmune diseases. 

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Swelling in the affected region
  • Skin problems
  • Abdominal pain or digestive issues
  • Recurring fever
  • Swollen glands
  • Allergic reactions
  • Tingling in the hands and feet
  • Numbness in the hands and feet
  • Redness
  • Trouble focusing

Causes of Autoimmune Disorder

The blood cells present in the immune system guard the body from harmful compounds. These dangerous elements are toxins, bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, tissues and even foreign blood. The immune system aids in producing antibodies that help fight against these elements, also known as antigens. 

When a person contracts the autoimmune disease, the body loses the ability to identify between healthy tissues and potentially harmful antigens. As a result, in response, the body starts attacking healthy tissues. However, there is a lack of evidence to conclude the exact cause for autoimmune diseases. The most appropriate theory is that antigens or drugs cause changes that confuse the immune system. However, as mentioned above, genetic factors play a vital role too. 

Common Types of Autoimmune Disorders

1. Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus

Maintaining the correct amount of sugar in our blood is essential. If it gets too low – it may cause palpitation, dizziness and anxiety in a person. Along with this, if it gets too high – it can damage one’s blood vessels, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.

The pancreas performs an essential function by its beta cells that secrete insulin to continuously bring down the glucose in our bloodstream, whenever it gets too high. Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) is an insidious, incurable, organ-specific AD, where the immune system damages these insulin-producing beta cells. In addition, specific genotypes and some viruses increase a person’s risk for getting Type 1 Diabetes. It often hits people in childhood or their early 20s and is very difficult for people to self-manage their blood-sugar levels constantly .

An important device that has improved the support is the CGM (Continuous glucose monitor), especially when paired with an insulin pump.

2. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, inflammatory, systemic autoimmune disease that affects the joints. The risk factors include age, gender, genetics, and environmental exposure (cigarette smoking, air pollutants, and occupational). 

Current evidence on RA suggests that it is a condition where the immune system creates antibodies that attack the linings of joints. As a result, it inflames the joint and causes swelling, pain, discomfort and stiffness. If left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis keeps progressing to cause irreversible joint damage.

The common symptoms are redness, swelling, soreness, and stiffness in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is different from osteoarthritis. That is because you may experience the symptoms of RA in your 20s. On the contrary, osteoarthritis is more common in people above 50.

3. Multiple Sclerosis

It is an immune mediated or an autoimmune disorder in which our immune system attacks nerve cells. As a result, it strains our central nervous system’s myelin sheath, a protective layering around the nerve cells. Damage to the myelin sheath reduces the speed at which signals travel across our spinal cord and brain. It also affects the reflexes across the rest of our body. As a result, it can gradually cause permanent damage or deterioration of the functioning in the optic nerves. 

Multiple sclerosis may result in pain, blindness, paralysis, poor coordination, and spasms. It manifests itself in various ways. However, several immune-suppressing medications may help treat this disorder. 

4. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBD)

It is a disorder that involves chronic inflammation of all or a part of the digestive tract. It often leads to diarrhoea, rectum bleeding, pressing bowel problems, abdominal pain and fever. People with IBD can develop ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. IBD isn’t usually fatal but is a severe disease that, in some cases, might cause life-threatening complications

5. Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the body’s digestive tract. It only affects the inner lining of the intestinal tract (colon) and the rectum and not the whole body. Symptoms of ulcerative colitis usually develop over time. However, the usual symptoms are diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss.

Every form of IBD impacts a specific portion of the GI tract. So, sometimes it can be difficult to diagnose.

6. Addison’s Disease

Addison’s disease is also called adrenal insufficiency that affects the adrenal glands which regulates the production of certain hormones like cortisol and aldosterone. Reduced amounts of cortisol impacts the level of glucose in the body and aldosterone balances the sodium, potassium in the blood. The imbalance can cause abdominal pain, irregular menstruation cycle, depression, low blood glucose etc.  

7. Celiac Disease

Gluten is a protein found in rye, barley, wheat, and other grains. Usually, this compound makes the dough elastic, stretchable and the bread chewy in texture.

Celiac disease is one of the most common autoimmune disorders triggered by consuming gluten-rich foods. It is also known as nontropical sprue or celiac sprue. In addition, some refer to it as gluten-sensitive enteropathy. 

8. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

Commonly known as Hashimoto’s disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder. Here the body immune system attacks the thyroid and our body’s tissues. This condition comes with fatigue, brittle hair, tiredness, dry and itchy skin, weight gain and depression.

9. Pernicious Anaemia

It is a type of anaemia in which our body lacks vitamin B12. Our body needs this vitamin to produce red blood cells and a particular protein, known as an intrinsic factor (IF), binds vitamin B12 into the intestines.

Non-vegetarian foods like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, seafood like shellfish, etc., are high in vitamin B12. Therefore, this is why vegetarians are more prone to be deficient in this vitamin than non-vegetarians.

10. Aplastic Anaemia

Another chronic autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body terminates the production of new blood cells. Thus leaving the individual exhausted and more vulnerable to infections and uncontrolled bleeding. It’s a rare and severe condition that can develop at any age. A bone marrow transplant is the only known cure for this condition. These transplants are also known as stem-cell transplants and help cure the disease by replacing damaged stem cells with healthy ones.

11. Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis is a persistent neurological autoimmune disorder that leads to weakness and rapid fatigue of any voluntary muscle. This condition occurs due to a breakdown in the regular communication between muscles and nerves. Generally, the most affected muscles are those around the eyes, face and the ones used for swallowing. Additionally, the onset is often sudden; it sometimes results in eyesight problems like drooping eyelids and double vision; trouble in mobility. 

12. Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Guillain Barre disease is a rare condition in which our body’s immune system attacks our muscle nerves like arms, upper torso and even legs. Symptoms are usually weakness and tingling in the extremities at first. Although with time, these sensations spread quickly, which often leads to paralysis of the whole body. The known primary treatment for this condition is plasmapheresis, which is a procedure that involves the filtering of blood.

13. Autoimmune Vasculitis

Vasculitis is an autoimmune disorder characterised by inflammation of the blood vessels. It occurs when our body’s immune system strikes our blood vessels by accident which results in the thickening of the walls of the blood vessels and a reduction in the width of the passageway. It may happen due to an infection, medication, or any other disease. However, the reason is often unknown. It may affect veins, capillaries and arteries.

Complications of Autoimmune Disorders

Complications of these conditions can be severe and dangerous. These complications differ widely based on the type of autoimmune disease and the individual’s profile. Although, one can reduce the possibility of severe complications by following the treatment plan designed by a healthcare professional. 

Complications may include:

  • Bone and joint pain leading to damage.
  • Blood-related problems such as blood clotting and bleeding.
  • Blood vessel damage and heart issues
  • Nervous system problems, such as neuropathy, paralysis, seizure and stroke
  • Cancer
  • Blindness
  • Frequent infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis
  • Organ damage
  • Nervous system damage
  • Pregnancy complications

What can you do if you have an Autoimmune Disorder?

Diagnosing an autoimmune disease becomes a long term process. It might take approximately five years to diagnose an autoimmune disease correctly. There are several autoimmune diseases, but no dedicated test that can detect all of them. However, medical professionals may use several basic tests to detect an inflammation process and accurately diagnose the exact type of condition. Additionally, diagnostic methods depend on the disorder. These include physical examination, blood tests, medical history, biopsy and even x-rays.

It is a task to identify an autoimmune illness in its beginning stages. When several organs or systems are involved, the process gets even more complicated. Lastly, the disease determines the manner of diagnosis. Some of those are:

1. Routine Blood Tests

Mentioned below are some routine blood tests recommended by healthcare professionals: 

  • Basic metabolic panel or comprehensive metabolic panel to measure our body’s metabolism.
  • Complete blood count test to detect abnormalities in red or white blood cells or clotting problems
  • Coagulation studies like activated partial thromboplastin time and prothrombin time to check your blood’s ability to clot and detect disorders like antiphospholipid syndrome

2. C-reactive Protein (CRP)

The Liver produces CRP, a protein that releases into the bloodstream in response to inflammation. The CRP test measures its levels. Changes in CRP levels may indicate developing symptoms of autoimmune diseases, a bacterial or fungal infection, type 2 diabetes, and osteoarthritis.

3. Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR)

It is a blood test that measures how quickly erythrocytes (red blood cells) settle at the bottom of a test tube containing the blood sample. Usually, they settle relatively slowly. However, a faster rate indicates inflammation in the body. Therefore, it may point out the risk of autoimmune disease, infections, cancer, chronic kidney disease, and other related conditions.

4. Antinuclear Antibodies (ANA)

Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system to fight foreign substances like viruses and bacteria. If an ANA test detects the presence of antinuclear antibodies in your blood, it may indicate an autoimmune disorder.

5. Immunoglobulins

  • This test measures three types of immunoglobulins. 
  • They are glycoprotein molecules that our plasma cells produce and act as a critical part of the immune response. 
  • They specifically recognise and bind to particular antigens, such as viruses or bacteria, and aid in their destruction. 

The immunoglobulin test looks at three immunoglobulins: IgG, IgM, and IgA. 

Examples of autoimmune diseases detected with this test are: 

  • Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome, and Immune thrombocytopenic purpura.

6. Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA)

The ELISA test determines the number of specific antibodies or antigens in a blood sample. First, a healthcare professional observes the condition that is causing the symptoms. Then they recommend blood tests for specific antibodies.

7. Rheumatoid Factor Test

A rheumatoid factor test helps measure rheumatoid factors in our blood. Rheumatoid factors are proteins that our immune system produces. Usually, our immune system attacks disease-causing symptoms like viruses and bacteria. Instead, the rheumatoid factors attack healthy joints, glands, or cells. Standard RF factor ranges below 50 IU/Ml and less than 1:80 for titer levels.

8. Anti-cyclic Citrullinated Peptide (Anti-CCP) Antibodies

Their presence in your blood indicates that you have rheumatoid arthritis. These autoantibodies begin targeting and attacking the healthy tissue. The test results are either positive or negative.

  • It is a type of autoantibody. 
  • It is an antibody that works against your body’s normal antibodies. 
  • A CCP antibodies test detects antibodies levels. 

Treatment of Autoimmune Disorder 

Generally, autoimmune diseases are incurable, but you can control them. The treatments for various autoimmune disorders include:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs: They reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Corticosteroids: They also reduce inflammation and treat acute flare of symptoms.
  • Pain-killing medication: They may be paracetamol and codeine.
  • Immunosuppressant drugs: They inhibit the activity of the immune system.
  • Physical therapy: It encourages mobility.
  • Treatment for the deficiency: An example is insulin injections in the case of diabetes.
  • Surgery: An example is the treatment of bowel blockage in the case of Crohn’s disease.
  • High dose immunosuppression: The use of immune system suppressing drugs.

The Bottom Line

Autoimmune disorder wreak havoc on a person’s body and eventually their mind. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t preventable or curable. They are often associated with genetic factors or develop due to environmental factors, like certain medications or prior viral infections. In addition, they may run into families and have genetic complications. Their treatment might be lengthy and costly. Nevertheless, correct treatment of autoimmune diseases can help lower or delay the onset of severe complications in individuals diagnosed with the same.

Therefore, It is best if the healthcare professional identifies a disease in its early stages. In that case, one can address it as early as possible to prevent severe complications. Gathering information and consulting a doctor is paramount. In extreme cases like these, self-medication is not the right way. Leading a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and exercise may minimize the risk.

But it is crucial to understand that autoimmune disorders can occur in any individual. Hence, early detection is essential. That being the reason, if you relate to any of the symptoms mentioned above – don’t let them go unnoticed; do act upon them immediately. Keep in mind that prevention is always better than cure. So stay healthy and stay safe.

About the Author

Dr. Nikhil did Medicine (MBBS) at St. John’s Medical College and then decided to step away to do a Master’s in Health Psychology at the University of Stirling. On the way to that, he has worked with an NGO, Enfold, on teaching sexual health education in schools and colleges to create a healthy foundation for better sexual health in the nation. He has also worked as a medical content editor with Vinformax. He has now been working with HealthifyMe to bring in a renewed user-centric perspective concerning the users' medical conditions and to support the company with more effective digital tools and devices. He hopes to help improve the healthcare scenario in India.

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