Do I Have an Autoimmune Disease? 5 Common Signs To Watch For

Rheumatology is all about the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases. But… what is an autoimmune disease really, and how would you know if you have one?

This is one of the most common diseases that affect us as humans. Sometimes, the symptoms are incredibly obvious to us in a way that gets us into the doctor’s office quickly and gets recognized fast; however, there’s so many other cases where it’s not obvious, it acts like something that sits just beneath the surface but can’t be seen. The symptoms end up being very subtle, quiet. The result, sometimes we’ll just feel poorly but not really understand that it’s coming from a low-grade, mild autoimmune disease that continues to burn away beneath the surface.

The worst thing that can happen here is that these low-grade symptoms boil away, undetected, hidden from us, and meanwhile are affecting are quality of life and, worse, causing damage to our organs. It can happen where that damage is so subtle we may not be fully aware of until maybe it’s too late or until something explodes into a much more dangerous situation.

So, today, I want to discuss autoimmune diseases in a general sense so we can understand their nature. These conditions cover a wide range of body systems, affecting nearly every body system. They can present with practically any symptom, some more common than others, although an exhaustive list is impossible to provide. I’ll briefly touch on the diagnostic process and offer tips for navigating it when you suspect something might be wrong.

What does the immune system normally do? …and where does it go wrong?

Our immune system serves this absolutely underappreciated, critical role for us. It operates invisibly most of the time to fight off viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc., things that would otherwise cause us harm if they got into our bodies. The reason we don’t get infected after a small cut on our arm (most the time!) is because of our immune system is there fighting off the Staph or Strep bacteria trying to crawl in and make us terribly sick. We do get the common cold often enough, even more often if you have kids, but the reason these viruses don’t usually cause harm beyond a sick day and some misery for a few days is courtesy of that stellar immune system fighting the virus off.

So if that describes a normally functioning immune system, what happens when it goes wrong? Autoimmune disease happens when that same immune system, which is meant to target the outside environment, decides to attack our own internal environment. It may find itself attacking our thyroid gland, our red blood cells, our liver, our heart, and numerous others. Sometimes this damage goes on but ends up short-lived; it burns out after running a certain course and then goes away on its own once the immune system reboots itself, so to say, and goes back to normal (Guillain-Barre syndrome is like this, for example). In other cases, once the immune system turns towards autoimmunity, it may continue going that direction for the rest of our lives (many “rheumatic” diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, and many others, for example are more like this).

Examples of autoimmune diseases:

  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (hypothyroidism)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica
  • Vasculitis (GPA, IgA)
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Many others!

What are the symptoms we might have with an autoimmune disease?

The type of symptoms involved really depends on which organ system or body part is being attacked. If we’re talking Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid gland, we’ll ultimately usually end up with a lesser-functioning thyroid gland and start to lose the benefits of thyroid hormone, a hormone that helps maintain our metabolism and energy levels. And say with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that primarily attacks our salivary glands in our mouth and our tear glands in our eyes, we end up with a chronically dry mouth and dry eyes along with the consequences that follow those—like cavities and scratchy/painful eyes.

Here’s a list of five common symptoms that can manifest with many different autoimmune diseases, these common symptoms probably representing some low-grade activation of components of our immune systems.

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog (like cloudy thinking, trouble with short-term memory)
  • General achiness without a good reason
  • Poor sleep
  • Rashes that can’t be explained by other causes
  • Many more!

What do you do when “everything looks normal”?

Like I mentioned, these can either come out of gate with incredibly obvious signs of something being wrong (like severe chest pain with an autoimmune heart issue like pericarditis) or end up slowly creeping into your life with subtle symptoms that gradually worsen. That milder, slower onset is often the more common way we see these occur. You can imagine this makes diagnosis tricky because we don’t always call our doctor’s the minute something minor is wrong. And, if it’s mild to begin with, even if we end up going in to the doctor, sometimes they won’t find anything wrong and tests might come back normal.

My advice here is something we’ve all probably heard before: we know our own bodies the best. If there is something out of sorts with us, for instance, over the last three months we’ve had this new but noticeable fatigue, our eyes are drying out, we’re having aches in our joints without good reason, and then you’re told everything is fine when you get checked out. Do you stop there?

No! When doctors generally say “everything looks fine”, it means everything looks OK as far as our tests are able to show us – it doesn’t mean nothing’s wrong.

Sometimes there’s no test, or sometimes it’s a different test that’s needed. Ultimately if you know something’s wrong, I encourage you to keep searching for that answer. And if necessary, even get a different opinion – someone else may have a different idea that leads them to the right answer for you and gets you the help you need.

In summary, autoimmune diseases are conditions where our body’s immune system, meant to fight external threats, turn against us. Symptoms are broad because autoimmune diseases can attack almost any system in our body. General signs such as fatigue, brain fog, and aches often indicate that your immune system is activated and may give an early clue that something is wrong. If you go to the doctor and try to relay that something is not right with you but testing ends up normal, keep asking questions, even if it means getting another opinion, to get to those answers. That’s because diagnosing these conditions can be extremely tricky and difficult despite having all the tools we have today.

 

If you have some of the above symptoms, or you know someone that does, a rheumatologist may be able to help.

 

If you’d like to set a free meet/greet phone call with me to talk – I’d love to meet you! Click here

Learn more about specific autoimmune diseases here