Living With an Autoimmune Disease

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: August 2022

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system is not working as it should. Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is one of more than 80 types of autoimmune disease. Each type has unique traits.1,2

There are several potential causes of autoimmune diseases. Research points to a combination of genetic, environmental, and other factors.1-3

What is an autoimmune disease?

In autoimmune disease, the immune system cannot tell the difference between normal cells and antigens. Antigens are substances that your body recognizes as foreign. They include things like:1

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Toxins

Because your immune system cannot recognize antigens properly, it attacks and destroys normal, healthy body tissue by mistake.1

How does the immune system work?

The immune system’s goal is to protect you from antigens and keep you healthy. It produces substances called antibodies that fight antigens and enable other protective responses. Antibodies signal your body’s immune system to destroy the foreign invaders.1-3

The body’s inflammatory response

The immune system produces certain proteins that regulate its responses. These proteins activate other cells or molecules to respond to antigens, which causes inflammation. This is all part of the natural inflammatory process.1

A little inflammation is good. It means the body is fighting off antigens. But in people with autoimmune diseases, the immune system is on overdrive. This causes chronic inflammation, which leads to painful symptoms.1-3

How is PsA an autoimmune disease?

As in other autoimmune diseases, in PsA the immune system mistakes healthy tissue for foreign substances. PsA affects the joints, ligaments, and skin the most. The abnormal immune response causes chronic inflammation. This then triggers joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.2,4

Inflammation caused by PsA can affect the entire body, including the:4

  • Skin
  • Hands and feet
  • Knees
  • Hips

If it is not treated early enough, PsA can lead to permanent joint damage and limited mobility.4

Flares and other symptoms

People living with autoimmune diseases often have periods when symptoms get worse (flares). They also may have periods when symptoms lessen or seem to disappear (remission). Even though you may not be experiencing a flare, your body can still be affected by chronic inflammation. You may experience symptoms like:2-4

  • Fatigue
  • Digestive issues
  • Fever

How are autoimmune diseases treated?

Treatment options depend on the autoimmune disease. Doctors may prescribe steroids and other medicines that suppress inflammation and the immune system. These drugs are called immunosuppressives.1-3

Newer drugs called biologics are often prescribed as well. They target the specific inflammatory pathway believed to be most linked to the disease's symptoms.5

For people with PsA, the goals of treatment are:3,5

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

For people with mild PsA, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines and healthy lifestyle habits may work for managing symptoms. For people with moderate to severe PsA, immunosuppressive drugs may be needed to reduce the immune system’s abnormal responses.5

In addition, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) help suppress inflammation in the body. They are often prescribed for people with active PsA.2,5

Finally, your doctor may choose a biologic drug to treat PsA that is designed to target a specific inflammatory pathway.5

Autoimmune disease research

A lot of research has been done to understand autoimmune diseases. Experts have made great strides in developing new treatment options and ways to diagnose people sooner.6

The main goal of research is to stop autoimmune diseases in their tracks through early detection. Ultimately, researchers hope to find ways to prevent them from occurring in the first place.6

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