Finding Doctors Who Specialize in Autoimmune Disorders
A healthy immune system recognizes foreign bacteria, viruses, and parasites and then attacks and destroys them to protect the body. Think of your body as having a tiny army living throughout your system. The army is your immune system. When a soldier perceives a threat, it notifies all the other soldiers, and together, they go to war to eliminate the threat. Their main job is to protect your body from infection and disease.
Not everyone has a healthy immune system. More than 50 million Americans have at least one autoimmune disorder. That’s one in five people, with 75% of those being women.
What is An Autoimmune Disorder?
Some people have immune systems that stop working correctly. It mistakes healthy tissues, cells, and organs for unhealthy ones and attacks them vigorously with inflammatory responses. For example, in someone with Type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakes healthy cells in the pancreas that produce insulin for unhealthy, foreign invaders.
As the pancreas is attacked, supplying insulin to the rest of the body becomes more difficult. Without the right amount of insulin, your body cannot function properly. Over time, this inflammatory response damages the pancreas. If left untreated, the pancreas may eventually stop working.
What Are Common Types of Autoimmune Disorders?
There are more than 80 autoimmune disorders. The most common types include the following:
- Lyme disease
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Grave’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Ulcerative Colitis
Who Gets an Autoimmune Disorder?
Many risk factors contribute to the development of an autoimmune disorder. Genetics and heredity play a significant role. You may be at higher risk if autoimmune diseases run in your family. However, having the genes does not guarantee developing an autoimmune disease. It only means your risk is higher. The more risk factors you have, the more likely a disorder will occur.
The Global Autoimmune Institute reports six more major risk factors other than genetics:
Women are diagnosed more with autoimmune disorders than men. Research shows that out of all people with autoimmune diseases, 80% are women. Some reports suggest the reasons for this difference are genetics, hormonal changes, lifestyle, and even how microbes develop inside the body. It is a collection of factors that exist more among women than men.
- Autoimmune Disease
Someone with an autoimmune disorder is more likely to develop a second, third, or fourth. One-quarter of people with an autoimmune disease have multiple autoimmune syndromes (MAS).
Having too much fat overworks the immune system. It causes inflammation harmful to the immune system. Until the fat disappears, the body will remain in an inflammatory state, which can damage all body parts, from joints to major organs.
In your home and travels, toxins build up and damage the body’s immune system in various ways. Some cause inflammation, and some suppress immunity. Examples of toxins include cigarette smoke, smog, pollution, chemicals released in landfills, lead, radon, and chemical solvents.
Several prescription medications trigger autoimmune responses, such as drug-induced Lupus and Scleroderma. Some medicines weaken the immune system, including corticosteroids, making you more vulnerable to fungal infections.
Epstein-Barr virus, strep throat, measles, mumps, and COVID are just a few bacterial infections that can trigger an autoimmune response in the body.
A report from Harvard Health Publishing shows a direct link between stress and autoimmune disorders.
What Are the Symptoms of Autoimmune Disorders?
Each person with an autoimmune disorder may experience different symptoms based on individualized factors like gender, weight, lifestyle, etc. Also, each autoimmune disease has its own set of symptoms, some of which may overlap, like the following:
- Swelling or redness in an area on the body that may also feel hot or painful
- Stiffness in your joints
- Achy or weak muscles
- Fatigue, even though you got plenty of rest
- Skin issues anywhere on the body
- Breathing troubles
- Swollen lymph nodes or glands
- Fluctuating fever
- Numbness in the hands or feet
- Cognitive issues
- Nausea, vomiting, or digestive issues
It’s a good idea to document all symptoms, no matter how minor or major you think they are. The symptoms that do not overlap can help your doctor distinguish between disorders. For example, Type 1 Diabetes can have all the above symptoms, blurry vision, excessive thirst, and frequent urination. Multiple Sclerosis may also cause electrical shock sensations in the arms, legs, and back. With Grave’s disease, a person can experience excessive sweating.
Symptoms of autoimmune disorders also mimic the symptoms of other illnesses, so getting an accurate diagnosis and finding doctors who specialize in autoimmune disorders is crucial. This means traveling outside of the country, like the U.S. or Canada.
How to Get a Diagnosis and Treatment for Autoimmune Disorders?
Getting an accurate diagnosis may be the most critical step besides prevention. If you have questions or concerns, it’s vital to find doctors who specialize in autoimmune disorders. They have education and experience above and beyond that of a general practitioner.
Just as you would seek a gynecology, cancer, or orthopedics specialist, you also need a specialist when infections damage your immune system. For example, someone with Lyme disease should seek a Lyme-literate specialist.
Below are tips from the Autoimmune Association to help you search for the right specialist:
- Gather and save medical information on yourself and your family
- Document your symptoms, including details associated with their occurrence
- Do not be afraid to travel outside of Canada or the U.S. for the right specialist
- Ensure they have credentials (education, licenses, association memberships, etc.)
- Choose a specialist with advanced tests and equipment in their clinic
- Ask questions regarding their experience with autoimmune disorders
- Ask for references who can verify their abilities
- Choose a doctor who collaborates with other specialists
Treatments for autoimmune disorders are based on your needs but may include apheresis, detox, antioxidant protocols, nutrition therapy, and lifestyle changes. There is never just one treatment that works. Instead, you and your specialist will create a treatment plan with multiple therapies to eliminate infections, alleviate symptoms, and help you get back to living a healthy, productive life.