Autoimmune diseases arise when the immune system – the body’s natural defense mechanism – makes a mistake and begins to attack the body’s cells and tissues. The immune system’s job is to protect you from infections by attacking and destroying bacteria, viruses, and other foreign organisms that get into your body. A normal immune system can distinguish invasive organisms from normal body tissue. In an autoimmune condition, the immune system loses the ability to differentiate foreign organisms and body tissues and attacks them instead.
Over 100 autoimmune diseases are known, affecting any part of the body. Some like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis are well studied, while others are rare and difficult to diagnose. Most are not life-threatening, but some can be debilitating and even affect life expectancy. No one can tell for sure the cause of autoimmune diseases. Some like diabetes and multiple sclerosis have a genetic origin, while others like lupus have an ethnic slant. Other factors can lead to an autoimmune disease like infections, diet, hygiene and exposure to chemicals. Over 24 million Americans have an autoimmune disease.
The diagnoses, symptoms, and treatment of autoimmune diseases depend on the condition. Here, we briefly examine five of the most dangerous autoimmune diseases:
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that affects the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve), causing severe, debilitating symptoms. In multiple sclerosis, the immune system cells attack the myelin sheath – a fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerves of the brain and spinal cord, causing inflammation. As the immune cells damage the myelin in several areas, they leave multiple scars or lesions in the brain, spinal cord, cerebellum, optic nerves, and brain white matter.
The symptoms of MS depend on the individual and degree of severity of the lesions. They include:
- Muscle weakness
- Fatigue and dizziness
- Loss of libido
- Electric shock sensations when bending the neck forward (Lhermitte sign)
- Muscle spasms and spasticity
- Vision problems (blurred, double, or partial or complete vision loss in an eye)
- Neuropathic pain
- Emotional changes
- Numb or tingling sensations
There is no cure for MS, but drugs like teriflunomide, mavenclad, interferon beta, and glatiramer acetate can slow disease progression. Other drugs like corticosteroids can reduce symptoms associated with MS flare. Scientists also believe that advances in stem cell research will be able to reverse symptoms of MS and provide patients with better quality of life.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the thyroid gland to overproduce thyroid hormone. The thyroid hormones regulate important body functions like growth, heart rate, temperature, menstrual cycle, and weight. Graves’ disease causes the immune system to produce antibodies that attach to healthy thyroid cells, causing them to produce more thyroid hormones than necessary. Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism and affects more women than men. The exact cause of the disease is unknown, but scientists think it is a combination of hereditary and environmental factors. Symptoms of Graves’ diseases include:
- Muscle weakness
- Hand tremors
- Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
- Irregular periods
- Weight loss
- Erectile dysfunction and decreased libido
- Sleep difficulties
- Graves’ dermopathy (thick, red skin on the shins and top of the feet)
- Frequent bowel movements
Hyperthyroidism from graves’ disease may be treated with antithyroid medications like methimazole and propylthiouracil. Treatment with radioactive iodine damages thyroid cells preventing thyroid hormone overproduction. Hyperthyroidism can be treated permanently by surgically removing the thyroid hormone (thyroidectomy). Individuals who have had their thyroid gland removed will have to regularly take medications like levothyroxine or synthetic extracts like thyroid-s to replace the hormone their body can no longer produce.
Pernicious anemia is a rare form of anemia caused by vitamin B12 deficiency. It occurs when an autoimmune dysfunction causes the stomach cells to be unable to produce intrinsic factor – a substance required for the absorption of dietary vitamin B12. The immune cells attack and destroy stomach parietal cells, which produce intrinsic factors. Pernicious anemia can permanently damage the nerves and organs if untreated and can be a risk factor for stomach cancer. It is also associated with other autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, Addison’s disease, and Graves’ disease. The symptoms of pernicious anemia result from the decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells, and they include:
- Weight loss
- Chest pain
- Bright, smooth, red tongue
- Tingling hands and feet
- Neurological symptoms
Treatment of pernicious anemia consists of vitamin B12 shots, pills and dietary modifications. The doctor will typically monitor the patient’s vitamin B12 levels over time and adjust the treatment accordingly.
Giant Cell Myocarditis
Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscles that can be caused by several conditions. Giant cell myocarditis (GCM) occurs when giant cells infiltrate heart muscle cells, causing inflammation. No one knows the cause of GCM, but it is associated with autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease. The symptoms of giant cells myocarditis include:
- Ankle swelling
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
Giant cell myocarditis can be rapidly fatal, and treatments include,
- Immunosuppressive therapy
- Heart implants like a pacemaker
- Heart transplants for people with severely damaged hearts.
Vasculitis is a condition that causes the inflammation of the blood vessels, the tubes carrying blood from the heart to the body organs and back. The condition occurs when the immune cells attack and destroy blood vessels. The reason for this attack is not known, but scientists think possible triggers could be infections, medications, or other autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of vasculitis range from mild to life-threatening, and they include:
- Loss of appetite
- Vision problems
- Severe headaches
- Sensation abnormalities
- Confusion and loss of memory
- Encephalopathy (brain swelling)
- Closed off blood vessels possibly leading to an aneurysm
Treatment of vasculitis is in stages and depends on the severity of the condition. It involves administering high-dose steroids and immunosuppressive drugs to reduce inflammation and the immune response.
Most autoimmune conditions are lifelong, and patients have to learn to live with them, though a few go away on their own. There is still a lot to learn about autoimmune diseases and how to treat them. However, people with autoimmune diseases can enjoy a good quality of life by learning about their condition, keeping to their treatment course, and adopting a healthier lifestyle.