Your immune system protects you by defending the body from disease and infection. When your immune system detects a threat (such as a toxin, bacteria, or virus), it mounts an immune response and produces antibodies and white blood cells to fight the invader.
When you have an autoimmune disease, however, your immune system activates in an inappropriate or abnormal manner. Unable to distinguish between self and non-self proteins, a dysfunctional immune system mistakes the body’s own cells for harmful invaders. It produces cells and antibodies that target, attack, and damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs. This results in a wide spectrum of possible symptoms and severity.
There are 80-100 known autoimmune diseases, and many more conditions are autoimmune-related or include suspected autoimmune components. Many autoimmune diseases overlap, or exhibit comorbidities and coexisting symptoms. If you have three or more autoimmune diseases, this is known as Multiple Autoimmune Syndrome (MAS).
Some autoimmune diseases are organ-specific as they affect certain areas of the body, such as the joints, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or as in type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Others are systemic, meaning that immune attack occurs in different tissues of the body. Examples of systemic autoimmune diseases are Sjögren’s syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
There are over 80 autoimmune diseases (ADs) and counting, including many rare and also more common conditions. The consensus on which ADs are most common varies. It is likely based on patient-reported information, physician experience in-clinic, hospital data, and research studies. Based on current information, some of the most common autoimmune diseases include:
Examples of common autoimmune-related or suspected conditions:
There are also many rare autoimmune diseases. In the United States, a rare disease means that it affects fewer than 200,000 people. In many cases, there exists such little information that the true prevalence is unknown. To learn about rare diseases, head to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
Certain risk factors are believed to impact immune tolerance and may lead to the development of autoimmune disease (AD):
To learn more, check out: 7 Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease
Rheumatologists are trained to diagnose and treat autoimmune and inflammatory diseases that affect the musculoskeletal system, as well as systemic conditions.
Other healthcare providers who may be more familiar with autoimmune disease and related conditions are:
You may choose to work with a combination of modern Western physicians and holistic practitioners to build your network of healthcare providers. It can be helpful to work with more than one expert in order to benefit from their additional knowledge, experience, and methods. They may offer fresh perspectives and be willing to communicate with each other, as the need arises, and coordinate your care.
In your doctor’s initial assessment, they will take your history, examine you, discuss your symptoms and risk factors, and order initial tests to search for clues. If they find an indication of what may be wrong, they can follow that lead through further diagnostic testing and analysis.
Testing is used in conjunction with your experiences and your doctor’s medical knowledge to investigate the underlying causes of your illness. Identifying complex, chronic conditions requires serious and compassionate detective work. The paths your doctor explores will depend on your particular symptoms, history, environment, and other details.
Listed below are a few examples of factors clinicians may look at and tests they may run to find answers. Understanding what tests are out there can help you get an idea of what may be involved in diagnosis and ask further questions.
Common autoimmune disease testing:
Other tests to understand the full picture of health and detect autoimmune or other conditions:
Note: Some of the listed tests are more routinely ordered by functional medicine, integrative medicine, or naturopathic doctors.
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