How Are Autoimmune Diseases Diagnosed and Treated?

Autoimmune Diseases 101

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Early diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune disorders is important. Not only does it help you understand and manage the condition, but gives you the best chance for avoiding, or limiting, permanent physical damage.

Diagnosis of an autoimmune disease can be a frustrating—but important—process.

As with many conditions, the diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder is a combination of several of types of inquiry:

  • Individual symptoms: Your symptoms are what drive you to see a doctor. Symptoms like fatigue are hard to explain, personally—and medically. But your symptoms are an important part of your diagnosis. If you have joint pain, but laboratory tests do not reveal a definitive cause, you may be diagnosed with an undifferentiated connective tissue disease (UCTD).
  • Laboratory tests: Lab work is a routine part of diagnosis for an autoimmune disorder, but may not give you definitive results at the outset of your symptoms. Autoimmune disease symptoms sometimes come and go, so clinical work does not always give you a straightforward answer. Autoimmune thyroid diseases, however, are conditions that can frequently be identified using blood tests
  • Physical examination: Connecting with your physician is important whenever you have lasting, or troubling symptoms. If you suspect an autoimmune disorder, work with a physician with experience in the area, or one who is willing to refer you on to the right type of specialist.

    There are times when a specific diagnosis is possible. On these occasions, appropriate treatment can sometimes arrest symptoms completely, and enable you to learn how to respond proactively when symptoms return.

    Your doctor can advise you on the possible course of your autoimmune disease. That said, because of the chronic, unpredictable nature of autoimmune disorders, your physician can give you an idea of the road ahead, with room to see how the condition manifests in your unique situation.

    Because of that unpredictability, speak with your doctor about monitoring, understanding triggers, medications, and methods of treatments that are best for your particular case.

    How Are Autoimmune Diseases Treated?

    While an autoimmune disease can go into remission, it is probably going to be a lifelong concern for you. That said, with the right treatment and medical care, you can enjoy good quality of life.

    Because an autoimmune disorder occurs when your immune system mistakes your own cells, or organs, as foreign bodies, inflammation is a common issue. Your immune system keeps its mechanisms in play to fight off a phantom infection.

    Much of the treatment for autoimmune conditions involves managing the consequences of that inflammation. For example, with Type 1 diabetes, insulin is prescribed to mediate blood sugar levels. This helps prevent vascular and organ damage.

    With other diseases, like RA, or lupus, medication slows or stops inflammatory actions that destroy joints and organs like the kidney.

    Types of immunosuppressive medications include:

    • Corticosteroids (prednisone) 
    • Methotrexate 
    • Cyclophosphamide 
    • Azathioprine 
    • Cyclosporin

    Treatment of autoimmune diseases through repression of the immune system is a delicate balancing act. Slowing the attack of the immune system on its own cells and tissue reduces symptoms, and saves your health. Yet, these drugs can have serious side effects, plus you are more susceptible to infection, and disease, when the function of your immune system declines.

    Even if your condition goes into remission, or a stage when symptoms are not active, medications and monitoring are still required. When medication is halted, even when disease symptoms are not present, the condition oftentimes returns.

    In addition to investigations into prevention, and better diagnosis of autoimmune diseases, research continues to search for treatments, and medications that have fewer—and less serious—side effects.

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