Here is a daunting fact: one in five Americans has an autoimmune disorder, which occurs when the immune system attacks itself. Moreover, about ¾ of those with an autoimmune disorder are women, or about 22 million women total. However, there is an even more disturbing trend amongst women with autoimmune disorders: 40% of those who are eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder were initially told that they were “too concerned with their health”. Essentially, a large percentage of women with serious immune problems are passed over and told they’re hypochondriacs.
However, armed with some simple information, you could prevent yourself from falling into the category of women who suffer needlessly. In fact, health experts say that the best way to protect yourself is to educate and empower yourself by learning names, risk factors, symptoms, and treatments for the seven most common illnesses women face.
- 1. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome—the most common type of hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age, and one of the leading causes of infertility. It stems from having levels of androgens, a male hormone, that are too high. The most common symptoms are irregular periods (or none at all), more hair on the face, chest, back and limbs, moderate-to-sever acne, baldness, and rapid and substantial weight gain that seems impossible to control. There is no single way to diagnose PCOS, but your doctor can check your reproductive organs for signs of mass growths using a pelvic or vaginal ultrasound. However, it is your responsibility to first inform your doctor that you have the aforementioned symptoms. Otherwise, the doctor may never know that there is a serious problem because the illness is so easily written off to bad diet, lack of exercise, or other “simple” explanations for seemingly benign symptoms. While there is no cure for PCOS, it can be controlled with birth control pills and Metformin to help regulate the hormonal production.
- 2. Fibromyalgia—doctors aren’t sure what causes this painful disorder, which results in symptoms that include pain, numbness and exhaustion, and often begins in early or middle adulthood. While there is no lab test or physical exam that can find fibromyalgia, doctors can do a tender-point exam, which identifies places in the body that are painful to the touch despite no immediate physical signs. The test is positive if 11 out of the 18 spots tested come back positive. There is no way to cure fibromyalgia, but sufferers can take over-the-counter pain medications to quell the pain. Furthermore, stretching, exercise, and massage can ease pain as well.
- 3. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome—at least 1 million Americans are believed to have CFS. However, doctors are unsure what causes the extreme fatigue that is common to the disorder. Some studies indicate that it could be related to dormant viral infections, hormonal imbalances, and stress. The common symptoms include decreased physical or mental activity that doesn’t improve despite long periods of rest. Loss of concentration and unexplained muscle pains are also common symptoms. In order to diagnose a patient, doctors must rule out other conditions that cause similar problems, such as Lyme disease or thyroid problems. While there aren’t any treatments or cures, Ritalin has been effective in some patients in reducing fatigue. However, the treatment is still experimental.
- 4. Lupus—there are four types of Lupus, however the most common is systemic lupus erythematosus. SLE is a nightmare: a malfunction in the immune system causes the body to attack itself, including wreaking havoc on the skin, joints, lungs, kidneys, nervous system, and blood. Doctors suspect that hormones play a vital role in the development of the disorder, particularly because women are usually diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45. Overall, lupus seems to strike during or following a pregnancy. The most common symptoms include fatigue, fever, joint pain and stiffness, chest pain, memory loss, and skin lesions. A diagnosis of lupus is confirmed if a patient has at least four symptoms: a facial rash after exposure to sunlight, painless mouth sores, kidney disease, swelling of the lining around the lungs and heart, and low counts of red blood cells, platelets, or white blood cells. While there is no cure for lupus, mild cases can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers. Moreover, anti-malarial drugs have proven useful in stopping the progression of the disease, while corticosteroids counter inflammation in the joints and lining of the heart and lungs. Overall, doctors suggest leading a balanced life since emotional stress seems to trigger episodes of lupus.
- 5. Multiple Sclerosis—MS strikes when the immune system attacks the protective covering of cells in the brain and nervous system. Eventually the destruction of the cells causes a breakdown in communication between the brain and body. Women are three times as likely to develop MS, and most scientists believe there is an environmental link like exposure to viruses or toxins. Classic symptoms include numbness or weakness in the limbs, dull pain, fatigue, and vision problems. Despite these symptoms, it is difficult to diagnose MS and to distinguish these symptoms from others that are related to other diseases like Lyme disease. However, tests for these other diseases can help rule out any other options and ultimately narrow the diagnosis to MS. Currently, those with milder symptoms from their MS are treated with corticosteroids. Other sufferers with more serious symptoms are put on an immunomodulator drug that helps prevent a complete relapse in muscle weakness and other symptoms. Exercise is also a crucial component in maintaining strength, muscle tone, coordination, and balance.
- 6. Rheumatoid Arthritis—RA attacks the lining of the joints through the immune system and can cause swelling, aching and potential deformities. The symptoms are easily detectable: simple activities, such as climbing the stairs or opening jars, can cause tremendous pain. It is difficult for doctors to diagnose RA, however, blood tests can reveal an antibody that is related to RA. Treatments include alpha inhibitors, or drugs that fight the inflammatory proteins. A second treatment is called DMARDs, which help to slow, reduce, and prevent joint damage. Finally, corticosteroids can cut inflammation around the joints, but become less effective over time.
- 7. Irritable Bowel Syndrome—simply stated, sufferers experience serious bowel problems including gas, diarrhea, and constipation, as well as abdominal cramping and pain. Doctors can usually pinpoint the problem by using the “Rome criteria”. In other words, if a patient experiences 12 weeks of symptoms out of 12 months, they most likely have IBS. The treatment is also very simple: eat more fibrous foods. Furthermore, some patients have found relief by using peppermint oil, a natural antispasmodic that can ease abdominal pain.
While most of these autoimmune disorders cannot be cured, they can still be controlled via simple methods. Be forthright with your doctor if you experience symptoms that you believe could be related to an autoimmune disorder. Most importantly, be persistent! If your symptoms bother you and interfere with your daily life, there is probably a more serious problem that needs further attention.