What Is An Autoimmune Disease?
The month of March is designated by the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) as National Autoimmune Diseases Awareness Month. The goal of the month is to educate the public on the risk factors, prevalence and severe lack of awareness surrounding autoimmune diseases. The theme for 2012 is “We Are 50 Million,” reminding Americans that there are 50 million people across the nation who suffer, comprising a major US health crisis.
An autoimmune disorder is a condition that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. Organs and tissues most commonly affected include blood vessels, connective tissues, endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas, joints, muscles, red blood cells, and skin. There are 100+ autoimmune diseases, including Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), vasculitis, and Addison’s disease.
Autoimmune diseases significantly affect women more often than men. In fact, these conditions are one of the top ten killers of women under the age of 65. The diseases “cluster” in families, so if you have an immediate family member with lupus, for example, you would be at greater risk for developing an autoimmune disease as well.
The outlook for autoimmune disorders depends upon the disease, but most are chronic, meaning they last over an extended period of time. The goals of treatment include reducing the symptoms, controlling the autoimmune process, and maintaining the body’s ability to fight disease.
Currently, there are well over 1,000 clinical trials in progress for various autoimmune diseases.
The AARDA notes that because many autoimmune disorders have to specific blood test to confirm, many Americans face a difficult challenge to getting to the correct diagnosis when they begin to experience symptoms. In fact, a survey found that as many as 45% may have been labeled as a hypochondriac at some point, with many being told their symptoms are “all in their head” or due to stress. The organization offers the follow tips to getting the proper diagnosis, and therefore, the most appropriate treatments.
1. Do your own family medical history. Because current research suggests a strong genetic component to the cause of many autoimmune disorders, you should take an inventory of your entire family’s health problems, expanding research to more distant family members, such as aunts/uncles, cousins and other relatives.
2. Keep a ‘symptoms diary.” People with autoimmune diseases often from a number of symptoms that seem unrelated. Keeping a journal will help you remember exactly what these symptoms are and which bother you the most. They may also help your doctor find a pattern leading to a correct diagnosis.
3. Seek referrals to good physicians. There is no medical specialty called “autoimmunologist.” So you need to seek out a doctor who is a good diagnostician. Talk to family and friends, and get referrals from community researchers such as local hospitals. Once you find a doctor, ask about his or her experience with autoimmune diseases. Do not be afraid to get second – even third – opinions if you are not getting the help you need.
AARDA’s President and Executive Director Virginia T. Ladd says, "Autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes, and celiac disease have all been shown to be on the rise, but answers as to why these increases are occurring are yet unknown. However, it is imperative that the public be more aware of their own risk factors for developing autoimmune diseases so that, as symptoms occur, they can seek a diagnosis and begin a treatment regimen. Early diagnosis and onset of treatment can make a significant difference in someone’s chances of becoming disabled or suffering organ damage.”
During the month of March, AARDA will sponsor several events to honor National Autoimmune Diseases Awareness Month. A free public forum entitled “What Every American Needs to Know About Autoimmune Disease” will be held in Denver CO on March 3rd. Additionally, the organization will host a Congressional Briefing in collaboration with the National Coalition of Autoimmune Patient Groups on March 28th.
Source and Photo Credit: The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association