Treatment of autoimmune diseases

How do I find out if I have an autoimmune disease?

Getting a diagnosis can be a long and stressful process. Although each autoimmune disease is unique, many share some of the same symptoms. And many symptoms of autoimmune diseases are the same for other types of health problems too. This makes it hard for doctors to find out if you really have an autoimmune disease, and which one it might be. But if you are having symptoms that bother you, it's important to find the cause. Don't give up if you're not getting any answers. You can take these steps to help find out the cause of your symptoms:

  • Write down a complete family health history that includes extended family and share it with your doctor.

  • Record any symptoms you have, even if they seem unrelated, and share it with your doctor.

  • See a specialist who has experience dealing with your most major symptom. For instance, if you have symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, start with a gastroenterologist. Ask your regular doctor, friends, and others for suggestions.

  • Get a second, third, or fourth opinion if need be. If your doctor doesn't take your symptoms seriously or tells you they are stress-related or in your head, see another doctor.

Are there medicines to treat autoimmune diseases?

There are many types of medicines used to treat autoimmune diseases. The type of medicine you need depends on which disease you have, how severe it is, and your symptoms. Treatment can do the following:

  • Relieve symptoms. Some people can use over-the-counter drugs for mild symptoms, like aspirin and ibuprofen for mild pain. Others with more severe symptoms may need prescription drugs to help relieve symptoms such as pain, swelling, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, fatigue, or rashes. For others, treatment may be as involved as having surgery.

  • Replace vital substances the body can no longer make on its own. Some autoimmune diseases, like diabetes and thyroid disease, can affect the body's ability to make substances it needs to function. With diabetes, insulin injections are needed to regulate blood sugar. Thyroid hormone replacement restores thyroid hormone levels in people with underactive thyroid.

  • Suppress the immune system. Some drugs can suppress immune system activity. These drugs can help control the disease process and preserve organ function. For instance, these drugs are used to control inflammation in affected kidneys in people with lupus to keep the kidneys working. Medicines used to suppress inflammation include chemotherapy given at lower doses than for cancer treatment and drugs used in patients who have had an organ transplant to protect against rejection. A class of drugs called anti-TNF medications blocks inflammation in some forms of autoimmune arthritis and psoriasis.

How to manage everyday life

How can I manage my life now that I have an autoimmune disease?

Although most autoimmune diseases don't go away, you can treat your symptoms and learn to manage your disease, so you can enjoy life! Women with autoimmune diseases lead full, active lives. Your life goals should not have to change. It is important, though, to see a doctor who specializes in these types of diseases, follow your treatment plan, and adopt a healthy lifestyle.

What are some things I can do to feel better?

If you are living with an autoimmune disease, there are things you can do each day to feel better:

  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Make sure to include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, and lean sources of protein. Limit saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars. If you follow a healthy eating plan, you will get the nutrients you need from food.

  • Get regular physical activity. But be careful not to overdo it. Talk with your doctor about what types of physical activity you can do. A gradual and gentle exercise program often works well for people with long-lasting muscle and joint pain. Some types of yoga or tai chi exercises may be helpful.

  • Get enough rest. Rest allows your body tissues and joints the time they need to repair. Sleeping is a great way you can help both your body and mind. If you don't get enough sleep, your stress level and your symptoms could get worse. You also can't fight off sickness as well when you sleep poorly. When you are well-rested, you can tackle your problems better and lower your risk for illness. Most people need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each day to feel well-rested.

  • Reduce stress. Stress and anxiety can trigger symptoms to flare up with some autoimmune diseases. So finding ways to simplify your life and cope with daily stressors will help you to feel your best. Meditation, self-hypnosis, and guided imagery, are simple relaxation techniques that might help you to reduce stress, lessen your pain, and deal with other aspects of living with your disease. You can learn to do these through self-help books, tapes, or with the help of an instructor. Joining a support group or talking with a counselor might also help you to manage your stress and cope with your disease.

You have some power to lessen your pain! Try using imagery for 15 minutes, two or three times each day. 

  1. Put on your favorite calming music.

  2. Lie back on your favorite chair or sofa. Or if you are at work, sit back and relax in your chair.

  3. Close your eyes.

  4. Imagine your pain or discomfort.

  5. Imagine something that confronts this pain and watch it "destroy" the pain.

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