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How to Go About Testing for Autoimmune Disease

testing for autoimmune disease

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Did you know that more than 24 million people in the United States are living with an autoimmune disease? These conditions can be devastating, causing pain, inflammation, fatigue, and much more. But how do you know if you’re one of the people living with one of these conditions?

Testing for autoimmune disease can be challenging, to say the least. Read on to learn more about these conditions and how your doctor may go about determining if you have an autoimmune disease.

What Is Autoimmune Disease?

Before we get into the ways your doctor can test for an autoimmune disease, let’s talk about what they are. Autoimmune disease is a class of different conditions, all of which impact how your immune system interacts with your body. Common autoimmune diseases include Crohn’s disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis.

If you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system gets confused and begins attacking your body. This can have an impact on almost any organ in your body, and in the case of some conditions, the attack may move from place to place on the body. Doctors aren’t yet sure why some bodies do this, although research is ongoing.

Why Diagnosing Autoimmune Disease Is Hard

Normally, when we think about a doctor diagnosing us with a disease, we imagine one simple test with a “positive” or “negative” at the end. And for some conditions, it can be that simple. For instance, testing for COVID-19 or the flu may be as quick and easy as swabbing your nose or throat and looking for the virus.

But in the case of autoimmune diseases, there is no one virus, bacteria, or sign doctors can test for. These diseases are the result of one of your body’s natural processes going haywire, so autoimmune disease testing may be more of a process of elimination. And to further complicate the situation, many autoimmune diseases present differently in different people.

Who Diagnoses Autoimmune Disease

If you suspect you have an autoimmune disease, you may need to see a specialist to get diagnosed. In general, gastroenterologists or rheumatologists are the ones who diagnose these conditions. Gastroenterologists specialize in digestive disorders, while rheumatologists focus on inflammatory conditions.

Even though your primary care doctor may not be able to diagnose you with an autoimmune disorder, they can still be a good place to start. They may be able to run some tests that can rule out other potential problems that could be causing your symptoms. They can also refer you to the appropriate specialist to get you the diagnosis you need.

Common Autoimmune Disease Symptoms

In most cases, your doctor will begin the diagnosis process by asking you to list off the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. Although there is no one group of symptoms that points to autoimmune disease, certain symptoms can raise the question. Your doctor may also need to rule out some other conditions that can cause the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Common symptoms of autoimmune diseases can include fatigue, swelling in your joints, and pain. You may notice problems with your skin, including rashes, itching, inflammation, and hair loss. You might also have abdominal pain, digestive problems, swollen glands, and a fever that just keeps coming back.

Appointment Questions

Once your doctor has a better idea of what symptoms you’re experiencing, they’re going to want to talk to you about your personal and medical history. This will help them start narrowing down potential causes and determining if an autoimmune disease is likely. As we’ll discuss more later, preparing a family medical history can help to make this step go smoother.

Your doctor will likely start by asking you for a list of medications (including supplements) that you’re currently taking. They’ll want to know how long you’ve had these symptoms and how severely they’re impacting you. They may also ask if you have a family history of these conditions and if you’ve noticed any specific triggers that make your symptoms worse.

Antinuclear Antibody Test

There are a few blood tests your doctor may run as part of the diagnosing process for autoimmune disorders. One of these is the antinuclear antibody test, which looks for certain kinds of antibodies in your system. You may also hear this called a fluorescent antinuclear antibody test.

Antibodies are proteins your body produces to fight off certain bacteria, viruses, and other invaders. But if your body is attacking itself, the antibodies it will release are a special sort called autoantibodies. Your doctor can look for unusual levels of these in your blood to help determine if you have an autoimmune disorder.

Complete Blood Count

Your doctor may also decide to order another test called a complete blood count. Your blood is made of a number of different substances, including red blood cells, white blood cells, hemoglobin, platelets, and more. A complete blood count looks at the proportions of each of these components in relation to one another.

In general, all the components in your blood should fall within certain ratios. But higher or lower levels of certain cell types can let your doctor know something is wrong in your body. Depending on the results of your test, your doctor may be able to determine that your immune system is acting inappropriately.

Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate

An erythrocyte sedimentation rate is another blood test your doctor may perform. The red blood cells present in your blood are called erythrocytes. When you place blood in a tall, thin tube, like a test tube, the heavier red blood cells will sink to the bottom.

If you’re experiencing inflammation, it could cause your red blood cells to clump and fall to the bottom of the test tube faster. An erythrocyte sedimentation rate evaluates how far your red blood cells fall in the test tube in an hour. The faster they fall, the more inflammation your immune system is producing, and the more likely it is that you may have an autoimmune disorder.

Track Symptoms

If you think you may have an autoimmune disorder, one of the first things you should do is start tracking your symptoms. It can be very difficult to remember exactly when a certain symptom started or how often it happened. But your doctor will need this information if they’re going to diagnose you with an autoimmune disorder.

As soon as you start noticing unexplained symptoms, start writing down the date the symptom started and stopped. You might also want to jot down a few notes about what happened just before the symptoms started. This may help you and your doctor to find patterns that can help with your diagnosis and treatment.

Gather a Family Medical History

A few weeks before your appointment, it’s also a good idea to start compiling a family medical history. Some autoimmune disorders are genetic, so if a family member has one of these conditions, you may be at higher risk. Your family medical history can also help your doctor to rule out other potential conditions causing your symptoms.

If possible, reach out to your parents and ask them about any conditions they’ve been diagnosed with. It’s also a good idea to get a general medical history for your grandparents and any siblings you may have. If you can’t ask your family for help with this, write down anything you can remember.

Treating an Autoimmune Disease

Unfortunately, there are no cures for autoimmune diseases. These aren’t bacteria we can kill or viruses we can help you to fight off; they’re problems wired into your body’s natural systems. However, there are some treatments that can help to reduce some of the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

Oftentimes, autoimmune disease patients take immunosuppressants. These are substances that work to suppress the body’s immune response to keep it from attacking its own cells.

Many patients also have to take painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications. Sleeping medications, corticosteroids, rash creams, and medications for depression and anxiety can also be included in treatment.

Learn More About Testing for Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disease is a serious set of conditions that will require lifelong treatment and care. Testing for these conditions can be tricky, since there’s no one test that can definitively prove you have one. Instead, your doctor will need to talk to you about your medical history, run some blood tests, and discuss your symptoms.

If you’d like to learn more about testing for autoimmune disease, check out the rest of our site at Desert Wellness Center. We provide naturopathic and integrative medical care for a lifetime of wellness. Book an appointment with us today and start discovering natural relief and lasting health.

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