“What does “autoimmune” mean?” “What’s the name of your disease again?” “Wait, could you slow down so I can write that down?” “My friend has (insert any number of conditions), is that like yours?”
Those of us with chronic conditions can all relate to receiving these inquiries, from close family to just met strangers, almost daily. And now that I live in the vortex of the autoimmune cyclone, I forget that the average citizen doesn’t know what I mean when I toss around random medical terms, speaking the unique dialect of the “autoimmunie”.
Can you name one autoimmune disease?
If not, you are not alone! In a recent Roper poll, less than 6% of Americans surveyed could identify an autoimmune disease. It’s time to change that statistic!
So, today, I am going to begin a series of posts to Untangle the Mysteries of the AUTOIMMUNE Puzzzle:
When people hear the term “autoimmune”, they interpret it in all kinds of ways… from HIV, to AIDS, to cancer, to the flu… anything they relate with “immunity.” My typical layman’s definition is: “There are hundreds of autoimmune conditions. The most commonly known ones are M.S. and Lupus. Basically, it’s when the body turns on itself and starts attacking a variety of systems and organs. It can attack the bones and cartilage, the skin, the nervous system, internal organs; basically anything it perceives as an ‘enemy.’”
Then I usually experience dumbfounded silence or a new barrage of questions: “What causes it?” “How did you get it?” “Can you get better or be healed?”
I remember all the questions I had when I was first diagnosed. Now its second nature, but it certainly didn’t start out that way! So, today, I thought I’d go a little deeper to uncover the facts about autoimmunity. I truly believe that knowledge is power… for the person suffering from these conditions, for their loved ones and caregivers, for our friends, and for the community at large. If we are ever to get the funding needed to answer those questions above, we need to first educate people on the serious and wide-spread effect these conditions are having on the world!
|So… let’s begin at the beginning: What is AUTOIMMUNE?au·to·im·mune /ˌôtōəˈmyo͞on/ Adjective:
“What is Autoimmunity?”
One of the functions of the immune system is to protect the body by responding to invading microorganisms, such as viruses or bacteria and producing antibodies or sensitized lymphocytes (types of white blood cells, important to immunity). This process can be beneficial when the body attacks a foreign substance such as a virus, bacteria or cancer cells. But it can become destructive when the body misperceives healthy cells and tissue as the enemy, creating antigens against these healthy cells and organs.
“What happens when your body comes ‘under attack’?”
Under normal conditions, an immune response cannot be triggered against the cells of one’s own body. In certain cases, however, immune cells make a mistake and attack the very cells that they are meant to protect. This can lead to a variety of autoimmune diseases. They encompass a broad category of related diseases in which the person’s immune system attacks his or her own tissue. Autoimmunity includes diseases of the nervous, gastrointestinal and endocrine systems as well as of the skin, other connective tissues and blood vessels (basically anywhere in the human body!). Autoimmune disease fall under two categories: Systemic (wide-spread, affecting multiple systems; in conditions such as Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis) or Organ Specific (in conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, affecting the nervous system and Grave’s Disease, affecting the thyroid).
“I’m not sure I understand what connective tissue is?”
Connective tissue is the tissue which binds (holds together) all body “parts” (ex: joints and bones) and organs. Connective tissue includes: cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.
“What causes Autoimmunity?”
The immune system normally can distinguish “self” from “non-self.” Autoimmunity occurs naturally in everyone to some degree; and in most people, it does not result in diseases. We need natural autoimmunity to survive; to fight foreign substances in our bodies. The problem arises when the body perceives natural occurring substances (cells, tissues, organs) as foreign. Autoimmune diseases occur when there is some interruption of the usual control process or when there is an alteration in some body tissue so that it is no longer recognized as “self” and is thus attacked.
“What do you mean, ‘under attack’?!”
Autoimmune diseases arise from an overactive immune response of the body against substances and tissues naturally present in the body. In other words, the body attacks its own cells. It starts to perceive everything as the “enemy.” (Imagine your immune cells chomping away through your cartilage or bones… I picture a horror version of the game PacMan!)
“Is the process/progression of Autoimmune Disease always the same?”
No, there are many variations on the way a body can attack itself:
- Some diseases are relapsing and remitting (flares of symptoms come and go) and some are progressive (symptoms always present- my disease progresses in this way)
- Some diseases cause a slow progression of the destruction of a specific type of cell or tissue
- While other diseases stimulate an organ into excessive growth
- And still other diseases interfere with the function of an organ or bodily system
Now you’re starting to see the many puzzle pieces in the Enigma of Autoimmunity!
End of PART ONE
Be on the look-out for further answers to questions such as:
“Who is affected by autoimmune disease?”
“What are the effects of a prolonged autoimmune attack?”
“What are treatment options?”
“What conditions are considered ‘autoimmune’?”
“What kind of medical professionals treat these conditions?”
“What the heck is Relapsing Polychondritis?”
“What does it mean to have a ‘rare disease?’”
And the BIG ONE…
“What causes the body to turn on itself?!” (This one’s a gripping tale so you’ll want to stay tuned for more!)
Thirsty for more information or knowledge right now?
Here are top sources I recommend:
American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association: https://www.aarda.org/
American College of Rheumatology: http://www.rheumatology.org/
National Institute of Arthritis & Musculoskeletal & Skin Diseases: http://niams.nih.gov/
Polychondritis Educational Society, Ltd.: http://polychondritis.org/***DISCLAIMER: The above information is compiled from my own personal research. It is meant purely as a starting point. I encourage you to contact a medical professional with any questions regarding Autoimmunity. And, certainly if you think you may have one of these conditions or need information about a current diagnosis, contact a physician as soon as possible to receive information re: your conditions, treatment options, etc. ***