Living With Autoimmune Disease

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2016. | Last updated: November 2021

Autoimmune diseases are disorders that are caused by abnormal functioning of the immune system. While there are many potential causes of autoimmune disorders, most research points towards a combination of genetic, environmental, and other factors1.  While there are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders, each has its own characteristics. A defining feature of autoimmune conditions is that your immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake.

What is autoimmune disease?

When you have an autoimmune disorder, your immune system does not distinguish between healthy tissue and antigens. Antigens are substances that are recognized by your body as foreign (e.g. bacteria, viruses, toxins). The normal function of the immune system is to produce protective substances, called antibodies, in response to antigens. Antibodies enable other protective responses and signal your body’s immune system to destroy the foreign invaders. If you have an autoimmune disorder, your body does not respond appropriately and sets off a reaction that destroys normal tissues.

The human immune system produces key proteins that regulate specific immune responses. The function of these proteins is to mobilize other cells or molecules in an organized way in response to antigens. These key responses and the ways in which they are mobilized are called inflammatory processes. In people with autoimmune disease, these proteins can fail to signal in the correct way or signal too frequently, causing chronic levels of inflammation.

Scientific understanding of various components of our immune system and the functions of these components in regulating immune responses has increased dramatically in the past two decades2. Yet there is still a lot of research needed to develop effective treatment options. Many treatment advances have already been made, or are under development, that are specifically designed with the goal of "fixing" the damaged immune system in people with autoimmune diseases.

How is PsA an autoimmune disease?

PsA is an autoimmune disease, meaning it occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, in the case of PsA, the joints, connective tissue, and skin. The dysregulated immune response causes chronic inflammation that triggers joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. The inflammation can affect the entire body and may lead to permanent joint and tissue damage if it is not treated early and aggressively.

Autoimmune diseases often have periods when symptoms get significantly worse, or flare-ups, and periods of remission, when symptoms significantly lessen or seem to disappear. Even though you may not be experiencing a flare-up, your body can still be impacted by the chronic inflammation and you may experience other symptoms like fatigue as a result.

How does it affect my treatment options?

While treatment options depend on the disease, one of the goals of newer treatments like biologics, is to target the specific inflammatory pathway believed to be most important to the disease symptoms. The primary goals of effective PsA treatment are to:

  • Reduce symptoms
  • Control the autoimmune process
  • Maintain the body’s ability to fight disease

For people with active moderate to severe PsA, an immunosuppressive drug may be needed to reduce their immune system’s abnormal responses. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication that is designed to affect processes of inflammation throughout your entire body, like a DMARD. In other cases, your healthcare provider may choose a therapeutic biologic medication that is designed to target a specific inflammatory pathway.

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