With autoimmune diseases on the rise in the past few decades, we’ve learned to detect early signs of an autoimmune disease to help fill in the gap about what causes the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues and organs.
With many variables and unknowns, there are a few things we do know about autoimmune diseases. For starters, autoimmune conditions can be managed, and some of the damage can even be reversed if diagnosed early enough.
The trouble is, most people get diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when significant damage has been done to major organs and so the symptoms are clear and prominent enough to make the diagnosis relatively easy to arrive at.
In fact, research shows that signs of autoimmunity can show up on tests months and even years before the patient has symptoms of a fully developed autoimmune disease. So, why is it so hard for an autoimmunity to be diagnosed early on before the damage is irreparable?
There are as many as about 80 different autoimmune diseases. The earliest symptoms of autoimmunity, however, are very, very similar. So this was the good news. The bad news is, they’re also vague, non-specific and sometimes, hard to identify as a reason for concern until the disease becomes acute which is why going to an autoimmune specialist like Dr. Autoimmune is so important.
Dr. Autoimmune and his team are dedicated to the fight against autoimmune diseases, and want to equip you with the knowledge you need to seek a medical opinion and receive an early diagnosis. So, here are some early signs to look for and some suggestions for how to track and address them with your doctor.
The skin is often the first indicator of inflammation. Any unusual rashes, redness, itchiness, blotchy and sensitive areas that show up without an obvious reason can point to an underlying inflammation going on in your body. Even acne can be a sign that something is not quite right internally.
While none of the symptoms we mentioned above can be directly linked to an autoimmune disease, noticing more than two of these symptoms should be reason enough to track anything unusual or suspicious; especially if you have a family history of autoimmune diseases.
So, if the condition of your skin inexplicably changes, be aware that among the many possible causes, there is a chance that it can be due to an overactive immune system.
Some autoimmune diseases especially, like lupus, are directly linked to changes in the texture and the color of the skin, so also be mindful of any swollen, scaly areas.
Sun sensitivity can be another thing to look out for and keep in mind when assessing any changes in how your skin ‘behaves’. While we all need to be aware of burning in the sun, for some people with autoimmune diseases, the sun can trigger flares and make symptoms worse.
“I’ve had patients come back from vacations in Hawaii and all of a sudden they have lupus,” says Dr. Autoimmune. “And others where it’s taken months to get their disease back in check after a severe sunburn.”
Researchers know that the sun can trigger lupus in some people who were already on track to get the disease. Sun can also cause lupus flare-ups in people who already have the disease.
There is also some evidence of a connection between sunlight and flares of a disease called dermatomyositis. Research suggests that severe sunburn might also trigger flares of psoriasis and scleroderma. Scientists are still working to learn more about this.
If you’ve worked a long 8 hour day and you feel mentally and physically exhausted, this isn’t a reason to get checked for an autoimmune disease. But, feeling mentally and physically exhausted even after some solid 8 or even 9 hours of sleep everyday should not go unexamined.
For many people with an autoimmune disease, fatigue is the most debilitating symptom. The fatigue from an autoimmune disease differs from the tiredness most people feel after long periods of work or exercise, or when they haven’t slept well. It’s a feeling of exhaustion all the time that interferes with the ability to function.
These common symptoms of fatigue and ‘brain fog’ can be among the earliest signs of autoimmunity and inflammation may be the reason for some of it, and should be taken very seriously!
Fatigue is sometimes the physical manifestation of anemia of chronic inflammation – a type of anemia that can be present in cases of underlying inflammatory disease.
Again, losing or gaining a couple pounds isn’t something to be alarmed about. But, weight fluctuation without any specific reason for it, especially if other symptoms are present, can also point to issues with the immune system. While some autoimmune diseases are associated with weight loss, others, on the contrary, can cause weight gain.
If your diet and physical activity haven’t changed but your weight has and it can’t be attributed to changes in metabolism that happen gradually with age. It’s also possible that it’s your immune system that needs medical attention.
Hypothyroidism, for example, is linked to slower metabolism which can translate into rapidly gaining weight even if your diet has stayed the same. And while it’s a myth that you can’t maintain a healthy weight with hypothyroidism (especially when you’re on the right treatment), you should be suspicious of changes in your body’s response to food.
Muscle or joint pain can be an unsurprising indication that something’s going on with your immune system. If you’re not an athlete or an avid gym enthusiast that recently overdid their work-out, your muscles and joints shouldn’t just randomly hurt.
Rheumatoid arthritis is not the only autoimmune disease linked to this type of pain. Aches all over your body can also be an early sign of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a condition of hypofunction of the thyroid, the result of the immune system attacking the gland.
A lot of autoimmune conditions have very similar early symptoms, so don’t jump to conclusions. Muscle and joint pain can also be a symptom of lupus but if it’s really early on, general autoimmunity is what you should look out for and then if confirmed, look into specific conditions.
Any discomfort of the digestive tract should be examined if other symptoms are also present. A lot of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) cause mild symptoms at first that come and go and can easily be attributed to ‘bad eating’ or stress. But you shouldn’t wait for blood in your stool to take diarrhea seriously.
Abdominal pain, cramps, bloating can all be caused by different things that have nothing to do with your immune system. However, if such symptoms appear ‘out of nowhere’ and you notice other signs of inflammation too, seek a medical opinion.
The lining of your digestive tract shouldn’t be severely compromised before you’re eligible to fight the inflammation. In fact, the sooner you do, the more of your beneficial microflora can be preserved.
Autoimmune diseases are not easy to diagnose unless specific prominent symptoms are present. Autoimmunity, however, can be diagnosed with a blood test that looks for auto-antibodies or tests looking for inflammation and dysfunction of certain organs most likely to be damaged by an immune system gone rogue.
When in doubt, always get checked out! If you have noticed some of these early signs of autoimmunity, schedule an appointment as soon as possible and ask for a blood test.
If you’ve already been seen by an autoimmune doctor, always seek a second opinion if your doctor refuses to take your concerns seriously. The earlier an autoimmune disease is detected, the easier it is to manage it and limit the damage done to the organs.
If you’re experiencing unusual symptoms, keep track of them and team up with medical professionals like Dr. Autoimmune and his team that focus on screening, treatment and prevention.
Dr. Ian Hollaman, aka Dr. Autoimmune, is a IFM certified practitioner located in Boulder, Colorado. He and his team focus on functional medicine that addresses what is above and below the surface.
Their mission is to empower patients with chronic and complex autoimmune conditions by identifying the root cause of autoimmune disease and by providing natural, customized care that offers solutions that promote optimal health.
Let Dr. Ian Hollaman, and the Dr. Autoimmune care team do what they do best! Click Here to schedule your appointment today or call us directly at (303)882-8447.
Ian really knows A LOT about thyroid problems! His knowledge and confidence convinced me to make the lifestyle changes -including no gluten, no sugar, and more exercise-that are essential to healing hormonal imbalances and to staying well. Several months later, I feel stronger, more energetic, and am happier than I have felt in a long time. Many thanks for all your help!
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