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When immune systems attack

What do multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis have in common? Both are painful, life-disrupting autoimmune diseases, but they also share one other common trait: They strike women of childbearing age far more often than they strike men. In fact, women are nearly three times more likely than men to develop an autoimmune disease, according to the Society for Women’s Health Research and the National Women’s Health Resource Center.

On the attack

An autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system misfires and begins attacking its own cells, tissues and organs. Researchers believe estrogen hormones play a role in that misfire, as can genetics. Some of the most common autoimmune diseases and their symptoms include:

  • MS: weakness, trouble with speech, coordination, balance and walking; paralysis; tremors; numbness or tingling in the arms and legs.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: joint inflammation, muscle pain, deformed joints, fatigue, loss of appetite or weight loss, weakness.
  • Lupus: swelling and damage to the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels and brain; butterfly rash on nose and cheeks; joint pain and swelling; sun sensitivity.
  • Thyroid diseases: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (underactive thyroid) causes tiredness, depression, cold sensitivity, weight gain, dry hair, tough skin. Graves’ disease (overactive thyroid) can cause insomnia, irritability, weight loss, bulging eyes, trembling hands, light menstrual periods.

Getting help

Untreated autoimmune diseases can wreak havoc on the body, and getting an accurate diagnosis can be a long, frustrating process. Patients may have trouble describing the sometimes vague symptoms, and healthcare providers may mistake those symptoms for another condition.

Concerned that you may have an immune disease? Help your healthcare provider get the diagnosis right by taking these measures:

  • Keep a family history. Make a list of all health conditions found in immediate family members and relatives and talk with your healthcare provider about them. He or she can look for a pattern of autoimmune symptoms or conditions.
  • Note your symptoms. Write down when they occur, if they worsen at specific times (such as during menstruation) and what makes them worse or better. Bring your list to your initial doctor’s visit.
  • Find a healthcare provider who listens to you and is experienced with autoimmune disorders. Having a provider consider all your complaints is a crucial part of getting a proper diagnosis.
  • Get yourself checked out. A thorough physical exam and specific blood tests may help pinpoint your problem.
  • Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Seeing another provider can confirm a diagnosis or further help you evaluate your symptoms.

Symptoms can vary widely not only from disease to disease, but also within the same illness. Prepare in advance for your doctor visit to help ensure you get proper treatment.