“Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system becomes misdirected and attacks the organs it was designed to protect. They are a varied group of more than 100 illnesses that involve almost every human organ system,” according to Catherine Bakewell, MD, a rheumatologist at Intermountain Healthcare. “They include diseases of the nervous, gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems, as well as the skin and joints and connective tissues, eyes, blood and blood vessels.”
“There are lots of theories, about why women have more autoimmune diseases, but we don’t have definitive answers,” says Dr. Bakewell. “Hormones play a role and inflammation causes a role. Men have hormones too, but women are still affected more. Estrogen predisposes women to autoimmune diseases.”
Dr Bakewell gives a few examples. Some women with an autoimmune disease can go into remission during pregnancy. During pregnancy, the body wants to protect the body and the baby. But, diseases like rheumatoid arthritis may flare fairly severely after she delivers her baby. We see that women have lower incidence of gout pre-menopause than they do post menopause. DHEA, a mild androgenizing hormone can help those with Lupus.
The five most common autoimmune diseases are:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis
- Celiac disease
- Graves’ disease
- Diabetes mellitus, type 1
Many types of providers treat these. Rheumatologists don’t treat all of these. You may need an endocrinologist, gastroenterologist, etc.
- Symptoms cross many medical specialties and can affect all body organs. Rashes, neurologic symptoms, etc.
- Initial symptoms are often intermittent and unspecific until the disease becomes acute.
- General medical providers receive minimal education about autoimmune disease.
- The conditions are so complex, there are a variety of specialists, making it difficult to understand relationships among the various diseases or advances in treatment outside their own specialty.
- Research is mostly disease-specific and limited in scope. More information-sharing is needed.
If RA inflammation goes unchecked, it can damage cartilage, as well as the bones themselves. Joints can become loose, unstable, painful and lose their mobility or become deformed. Joint damage cannot be reversed, so early diagnosis and aggressive treatment is recommended.