June 8, 2023

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Without awareness, autoimmune diseases often go undetected | News

Autoimmune diseases

Dr. Martin Dubravec, an internist with the Allergy and Asthma Specialists of Cadillac. Dubravec said autoimmune diseases can often go undetected due to their sometimes easily explainable symptoms and rarity of the condition.

CADILLAC — Diseases are around every corner, and while it’s common to see a case of influenza or chickenpox, there are many severe conditions that go completely undetected. Autoimmune diseases occur when the body begins to attack its own immune system, causing a severe level of inflammation, and sometimes debilitating a person’s everyday life.

Nearly 5% of the American population suffers from autoimmune conditions, according to Dr. Martin Dubravec, an internist with the Allergy and Asthma Specialists of Cadillac. Some common autoimmune conditions include diabetes, thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis, all of which Dubravec said have painful and taxing impacts on the body.

Because they’re considered to be rare diseases, often with easily explainable symptoms, most patients won’t even know they have a condition until the symptoms become severe.

“It can sometimes make it a little more difficult to figure out what is not only a disease versus something else,” he said. “And autoimmune diseases can sometimes creep up on us.”

It took 10 years of battling symptoms for Cadillac community member Alyson Haner to discover she has Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is an autoimmune condition characterized by swollen salivary and tear glands, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.

“So it started out with fatigue and general aches and pains. I’ve always been a very thirsty person, always having dry eyes and dry nose and dry mouth, and that’s apparently a very big clue to my particular disease,” she said. “But, I think the biggest problematic thing for me, and the thing that I sought help for was, I tend to have a lot of swollen lymph nodes, and so I went to the doctors frequently for nondescript abdominal pain and EEG (electroencephalography), and that was the big one.”

One of the main obstacles that kept Haner from receiving a diagnosis was a dismissal of her symptoms by her doctor at the time. She said complaints of fatigue, aches and swelling were attributed to being “overweight and stressed.” Left with no validation for her symptoms, she started to give up on seeking help, convincing herself it was all in her head.

“So I stop seeking help until it got so much that I absolutely needed help,” Haner said. “And when we found out, my whole body had attacked itself pretty horrifically.”

The symptoms became more severe after Haner gave birth to her first child, which Dubravec said is common due to the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy. Overall, autoimmune conditions disproportionately affect women rather than men, and they can make it difficult to become pregnant or carry the child to full term.

Like so many other women, that was the case for Haner before she began treatment for her Sjogren’s Syndrome.

“I personally have had eight miscarriages, which is pretty difficult on your psyche and your body, and since starting my medication, and kind of getting my autoimmune disease under control, I haven’t had a miscarriage,” she said. “I actually had two successful pregnancies back to back, which was quite nice; a little stressful, but nice.”

Some very rare autoimmune conditions can be cured with procedures like bone marrow transplants, but Dubravec said, in general, they can only be managed through medication and lifestyle changes. Decades ago, even basic management of symptoms was difficult, but with continued medical advancement, there’s now several treatments that can be administered to help patients deal with their condition and still live a normal life.

“Now we have a whole host of treatments that have really revolutionized the treatment of autoimmune disease from things like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis to some of the others like thyroid disease, and even diabetes,” he said. “The way we’re treating it, from insulin pumps to new therapies, it’s amazing how far we’ve come in the past 20 years.”

After two years of being prescribed medication for Sjogren’s, Haner said she’s been able to dampen the severity of her symptoms. Keeping additional inflammation at bay has been achieved through a few lifestyle changes.

“I now know I need to avoid certain things. For me personally, dairy is a big issue,” she said. “I do take medication. I have tried to reduce the stress in my life and really found a good doctor that’s willing to listen and willing to take steps and tests, which has been wonderful.”

Even when every effort is being made to alleviate symptoms of an autoimmune disease, they can still cause a disruption in someone’s day-to-day activities. Different conditions will have symptoms that are specific to that disease, but Dubravec said most autoimmune disorders have some ailments in common, like fatigue, joint pain and muscle pain.

For Hope Network Employment Training Specialist Jackiee Conklin, the pain she feels from her rheumatoid arthritis and sepsis meningitis is almost indescribable, but she tries her best to explain it when people ask.

Autoimmune diseases

Hope Network Employment Training Specialist Jackiee Conklin. Since being diagnosed in her early twenties, Conklin has suffered from an autoimmune condition called sepsis meningitis, which occurs when meningitis bacteria enters the blood stream.

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘well, I think I have an autoimmune disease. I’m not quite sure, these are some of my symptoms,’” she said. “And one of my biggest questions I ask them is, do you feel like your body is trying to kill itself every day? Do you feel like your cartilage is being eaten alive?”

Sepsis meningitis is one of the rarer autoimmune conditions, and it’s considered autoimmune because the bacteria enters the blood stream. Conklin said it typically develops at a later date for individuals who have had meningitis. In her case, she was diagnosed with meningitis at six weeks and was then diagnosed with sepsis meningitis in her early 20s.

The toll isn’t only physical, but mental as well. Having a high level of fatigue, when Conklin returns from an eight-hour day at work, she normally doesn’t have enough energy to do housework or additional tasks with her family.

“I feel guilty. Especially if you have a family,” she said. “Because then, they’re taking on the brunt of your work, and I feel bad. You feel bad.”

As a mom who’s constantly on the go, Haner typically has to just put up with the varying levels of pain and tiredness she experiences on a daily basis.

“The best way to describe it was, my bones hurt. It hurts to breathe. Every part of me hurt,” she said. “I have kids, and so I really couldn’t stop, but if I didn’t have anything to fight for every day, I probably would have lived my life in bed.”

Keeping the public well-informed on what autoimmune diseases are, what symptoms they carry and how they can be treated is crucial, Dubravec said, because the earlier they’re identified, the better they can be managed.

Autoimmune disease

Jackiee Conklin’s sepsis meningitis and rheumatoid arthritis keep her at a low energy level, so when she returns from a full day of work, she’s often too tired to do anything else. The impact is mental as well as physical due to the guilt that she feels toward her family picking up the slack with household chores.

It took cycling through four different doctors before Conklin was able to identify which autoimmune diseases she actually had, and by the time they caught it, her sepsis meningitis had impacted her brain, which had to be reconstructed. To this day, she struggles with memory loss issues.

She said that raising awareness and increasing education surrounding autoimmune diseases could keep people from having the same experience. It also takes dedication and attention from medical professionals.

“A lot of times, when you end up realizing that something is not right in your body, it normally means that you’ve been suffering with it for a little bit, because the symptoms will get worse,” she said. “So until the symptoms are worse, they may not run your blood for RA (rheumatoid arthritis), they may run it for something else. Doctors should run full panels. They really should.”

When people think of their immune system, they often associate its level of strength with their level of healthiness. While that is true, its function goes beyond fighting disease.

“The immune system does three main things as I see it. Number one, it fights infection. Number two, kills cancer cells, and number three, it releases a variety of chemicals like hormones that keep the body healthy,” he said. “So, if the immune system is somehow not functioning correctly, it can affect all aspects of immune function such as cancer surveillance.”

Research is still being done to identify what exactly triggers an autoimmune disease, but they are known to be passed down through genetics. For that reason, Haner’s goal in spreading autoimmune disease awareness is to protect her children and the children of others.

“Every time they have an ache and pain, I’m like, ‘oh, we need to get to this. I don’t want you to go through years and years and years without it.’ And as we learn more, a lot of times we’re seeing that some of these autoimmune do kind of have some sort of familiarly, whether it’s genes or whatnot,” she said. “And I think there needs to be a lot more education and studying of them to figure out what’s causing them, how we can treat the people that have them, and maybe how we can prevent others from getting them.”

A database of different autoimmune diseases and possible symptoms, causes and treatments can be found through the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association.