A recent experience got me thinking about autoimmunity once again. Last week a lingering tingling in my hands prompted a call to my rheumatologist. He called back on Friday evening at 7:00 (after most people already called it a work week!) and asked me to come in the following week. After a few minutes in the exam room, he quickly pronounced that I had carpel tunnel syndrome…nerve damage (parasthesia) to the median nerve in the wrist. Although it could’ve been a side effect of taking Humira, the diagnosis was not a much of a surprise as I guessed this was the culprit. Carpel tunnel syndrome is commonly associated with RA.[i]
During the process of the doctor visit, I mentioned to the nurse and doctor that I had lost about 10 pounds in the past few months. For most folk, this would be a welcome thing. But I was not trying to lose weight and nothing else in my life had really changed lately. Unlike the mentioning of a few other symptoms (e.g. a recent flare including increased joint pain), this garnered attention and prompted a slew of questions and digging through the doctor’s notes which included my most recent blood work. The rheumy noted that my glucose level was slightly elevated previously (yes, I remembered him telling me this a few months back). This, of course, turned the discussion towards diabetes. Another glucose test along with a c-peptide test was ordered. He also mentioned thyroid problems as a possibility. My mother had autoimmune hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s Disease) years ago eventually resulting in the removal of her thyroid. A complete battery of thyroid tests was also ordered. Off to the lab I went for a new blood draw.
While the lab test results are pending and I try to avoid thinking too much about it, I remembered that type I diabetes and Hashimoto’s Disease both have an autoimmune basis (specific organs are attacked in both). My recent set of symptoms may simply be part of RA and I can’t draw any definitive conclusions at this time. I’ve been down this road before as several years ago my first autoimmune symptom was uveitis– inflammation of the eyes. But once again I found myself asking the question, “Why does the body attack itself?” The simple answer is that scientists don’t really know although environmental and genetic factors are implicated (see earlier post on suspected triggers). But once a trigger occurs, the immune system mistakenly identifies your own tissue as foreign and then attacks it (see biochemistry of RA post). There are dozens of autoimmune diseases – rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, lupus, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis are among the more common. Patients with one autoimmune disease tend to be more prone to get another and there appears to be a genetic disposition.
The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) is the only non-profit group devoted to autoimmunity. This organization provides a wealth of relevant information and support materials. According to their website, 50 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disease. That’s about 20% of the population! Below are some surprising statistics about autoimmune diseases that are posted on the AARDA website. I encourage readers to pass this information onto friends and health care providers. The bottom line in my mind…
- Autoimmune diseases affect large numbers of people
- The symptoms can be serious and chronic
- Causes and cures are unknown at present
- More research is needed
- There is much ignorance about autoimmune diseases and how they affect people
Autoimmune Disease…is a major health problem.
• Researchers have identified 80-100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an autoimmune basis. These diseases are chronic and can be life-threatening.
• Autoimmune disease is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in female children and women in all age groups up to 64 years of age.
• A close genetic relationship exists among autoimmune disease, explaining clustering in individuals and families as well as a common pathway of disease.
• Commonly used immunosuppressant treatments lead to devastating long-term side effects.
• The Institute of Medicine reports that the US is behind other countries in research into immune system self recognition, the process involved in autoimmune disease.
• Understanding how to modulate immune system activity will benefit transplant recipients, cancer patients, AIDS patients and infectious disease patients.
…faces critical obstacles in diagnosis and treatment.
• Symptoms cross many specialties and can affect all body organs.
• Medical education provides minimal learning about autoimmune disease.
• Specialists are generally unaware of interrelationships among the different autoimmune diseases or advances in treatment outside their own specialty area.
• Initial symptoms are often intermittent and unspecific until the disease becomes acute.
• Research is generally disease-specific and limited in scope. More information-sharing and crossover among research projects on different autoimmune diseases is needed.
…offers surprising statistical comparisons with other disease groups.
• NIH estimates up to 23.5 million Americans have an AD. In comparison, cancer affects up to 9 million and heart disease up to 22 million.
• NIH estimates annual direct health care costs for AD to be in the range of $100 billion (source: NIH presentation by Dr. Fauci, NIAID). In comparison, cancers costs are $57 billion (source: NIH,ACS), and heart and stroke costs are $200 billion (source: NIH, AHA).
• NIH research funding for AD in 2003 came to $591 million. In comparison, cancer funding came to $6.1 billion; and heart and stroke, to $2.4 billion (source: NIH).
• The NIH Autoimmune Diseases Research Plan states; “Research discoveries of the last decade have made autoimmune research one of the most promising areas of new discovery.”
• According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health, autoimmune disease and disorders ranked #1 in a top ten list of most popular health topics requested by callers to the National Women’s Health Information Center.[ii]
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