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Autoimmune Disease and RA

Understanding the role played by the body’s immune system in the progress of rheumatoid arthritis.

What Are Autoimmune Diseases? continued...

When the disease affects many organs, as in lupus, it’s called a systemic autoimmune disease. If it affects a single organ or type of tissue, such as in type 1 diabetes, it’s known as a localized autoimmune disease. Different autoimmune diseases often cluster in families and may affect almost any organ in the body. When they do, they may cause abnormal growth or changes in function.

There are some similarities to allergies in the way the body reacts negatively with an autoimmune disease. The difference is that with allergies, the body’s overreaction and response is to external factors such as dust or dander. With an autoimmune disease, the body is responding to itself.

Virginia T. Ladd, RT, is president and executive director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association Inc. (AARDA). She tells WebMD it helps to think of autoimmune diseases the way we think of cancer. In other words, it helps to think of them as a disease category.

“There are more than 100 different forms of cancer,” Ladd says, “but they’re all formed by a mutant cell that the immune system allows to proliferate.” She says that autoimmune diseases also share a common disease pathway. “They’re all caused by the immune system attacking its own tissue.” For this reason, she says, we need a shift in our thinking about autoimmune diseases. In the past, these diseases have been looked at as individual “cars on a train” with too little focus on the “engine” that’s driving the train. In her view, research into autoimmunity has been stymied by specialization of medicine, which is organized by the organ - not the origin - of disease.

This is especially important because autoimmune diseases often run in families. And members of these families often develop different types of autoimmune diseases. “If you were going in to see a doctor for joint problems, would you think it mattered to mention that your brother had Crohn’s?” Ladd asks. Probably not. Most people wouldn’t put two and two together. Understanding this connection is very important, though, because early diagnosis and treatment of an autoimmune disease like RA can often make a big difference.

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