Autoimmune Disorders… what exactly are those?

When one’s life becomes filled with a new vocabulary, it is easy to forget that some terminology isn’t quite so simple. Diagnosed with MS over 17 years ago, I first had to learn that MS was Multiple Sclerosis, not MD, Muscular Dystrophy. Over that stretch of time, I have learned more than I ever thought I would need to know about the immune system. (Dad is a doctor, Mom a nurse, and I decided not to pursue the medical profession… I wished to avoid needles, thank you very much.) But one of the first things I discovered about MS was that it was in an insidious category of illnesses: the “Autoimmune Disorder.”

I think most of us take the immune system for granted, at least a bit. The immune system attacks nasty germs, keeping us healthy… at least it is supposed to do this. I mentioned at the start of the month how MS is a case of a misguided immune system, where the white blood cells attack spots of the myelin coating of the nerves. These myelin breaks create scars, “sclerosis.” Generally more than one, or “multiple.” And there you have MS.

But if the immune system can attack the nerves, what other havoc can it wreak when it is misguided? It happens that I have friends who have experienced other autoimmune diseases – and each of these is “invisible” in many ways. So this is certainly not all-inclusive, but I will share a bit about other cases of a misguided immune system, five types of immune system mishaps that affect real friends of mine:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: The immune system attacks the joints, causing swelling and pain. Look at your own body: move a finger, a leg, a shoulder… those are all joints. And you can imagine the frustration. (And thankfulness for medication that helps!) Interestingly, RA is 2-3 times more likely in females.
  • Lupus: Lupus occurs when cells within the immune system become supercharged, you could say, and decide to attack various organs or joints. Frankly, this one was the most difficult for me to make sense of. And about two thirds of those diagnosed with lupus are female.
  • Chrohn’s disease – this disease of the digestive tract can be insidious and is hard to explain to others. Unlike the others I mentioned, Chrohn’s doesn’t seem to care if you’re male or female. Affecting various parts of the digestive tract, this disorder affects people in different ways.
  • Type 1 Diabetes (juvenile diabetes) – the pancreas is that funny-looking organ behind the stomach, and I never thought much about its purpose until a close friend had to give herself insulin shots while I was in college. I found that insulin in the blood helps to break down sugars, and that insulin comes from the pancreas. This is a constant, necessary action… so when the immune system attacks the pancreas, that is not good. Not good at all. (Insulin shots and insulin pumps are wonderful things, but life-altering indeed.)
  • Alopcia – I actually had not heard of this until about 14 years ago, when I was blessed to join a group of college girls in “Project Hair,” a group cutting hair to donate to ”Locks of Love.” This organization was making wigs for young girls with alopecia, so that they could have a quality wig, free of charge, as nice wigs are expensive. Since that time, I have learned more about alopecia. This, you see, is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the hair follicles, most notably those on the scalp. Sometimes only a patch, sometimes growing back later. And from what I read, the struggles often lie psychologically, as one has to culturally face the lack of hair. The disorder does affect both males and females, but being a bald boy or man is usually simpler in today’s culture. And from my mother’s experience during chemotherapy, I recall that wigs are itchy and uncomfortable. (My friend with alopecia was just sharing last week that this is indeed the case, and it is why she prefers to wear soft knit hats.)

When one has a wonky immune system, so much is affected! I may write more about that later, but for now, I wanted to shine a bit of a spotlight on others whose struggles are often hidden, but who deal with very real challenges. I hope this little glimpse can help these issues become a bit more visible.

For me, it makes me stop before complaining of a “bad hair day,” and I also remember to appreciate my ability to sneak a chocolate snack without needing to test my blood sugar. And it helps me appreciate the parts of my immune system that do what they’re supposed to do.

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4 Comments

  1. Dori Wooldridge said,

    March 23, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    I have Graves Disease which is the immune system attacking the thyroid ,causing it to be over active. I had most of my thyroid surgically removed. People with auto immune diseases can be predisposed to other auto immune diseases. Although genetics play a role, researchers are finding environmental issues as well. I spoke to a type 1 diabetes researcher who said that there are certain geographical areas where the incidence of type 1 diabetes is dramatically higher…even certain neighborhoods!! Raises many questions…just found that to be interesting.

  2. Angie said,

    March 23, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Thank you, Dori! I appreciate you sharing, And this is why I said the list was not at all complete. The thought of intertwined illnesses is likely the theme of my next post. Epidemiology is fascinating, though sometimes on the troubling side. I will add “Graves Disease” to my mental list of autoimmune diseases faced by friends.

  3. Kelli Jo Eastus said,

    March 24, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Glad you shared! Seeing as how I am one that is affected by RA and Alopecia Areata. It is so true when you say it is invisible in many ways. Thank you 🙂

    • Angie said,

      March 24, 2015 at 8:06 pm

      Thanks, Kelli Jo – your smile in the midst of these things we don’t all “get” speaks volumes… thank you!


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