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Severe Headache Could Signal Autoimmune Disease E-mail
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Severe and frequent headaches, especially in people who don’t typically have headaches are not normal, may signal an autoimmune disease and warrant a visit to the doctor. The headaches could be a symptom of vasculitis -- blood vessel inflammation. Vasculitis is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Depending on the type of vasculitis -- there are more than a dozen -- the disease can disrupt blood circulation and, in some cases, cause death, according to the September issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter.

In addition to headache, symptoms might include fever, fatigue, weight loss, muscle and joint pain, appetite loss, and numbness or weakness. Often, the exact cause of vasculitis isn’t known, although some forms can be linked to infections such as hepatitis B and C, as well as certain medications.

 

Diagnosis usually involves blood tests and imaging studies of the blood vessels. It also may include a biopsy of an affected blood vessel or tissue.

Treatment depends on the type of vasculitis, its severity and the patient’s overall health. The anti-inflammatory properties of corticosteroid medications such as prednisone and methylprednisolone often improve symptoms within days. Immune-suppressing and cytotoxic drugs are used when vasculitis is severe and does not respond to corticosteroids.

Thanks to drug treatments, some types of vasculitis that were once considered fatal can be managed or even go into remission. However, side effects with the medications are a concern. Some medications can increase the risk of serious infections and some cancers. A doctor who has training in this area, often a rheumatologist, can carefully monitor the prescribed medications, their benefits and side effects to best manage the illness.

About Autoimmune Disease

An autoimmune disorder is a condition that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. Autoimmune diseases can affect virtually every site in the body, including the endocrine system, connective tissue, gastrointestinal tract, heart, skin, and kidneys. At least 15 diseases are known to be the direct result of an autoimmune response, while circumstantial evidence implicates >80 conditions with autoimmunity There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disorders.

Autoimmune diseases are currently ranked as the third biggest disease category in the US behind heart disease and cancer. An estimated 3% of the population in the United States is affected by a tissue-specific or systemic autoimmune disorder.  In many other parts of the world they rank as the biggest disease category. 

In patients with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can't tell the difference between healthy body tissue and antigens. The result is an immune response that destroys normal body tissues. The response is a hypersensitivity reaction similar to allergies, where the immune system reacts to a substance that it normally would ignore. In allergies, the immune system reacts to an external substance that would normally be harmless. With utoimmune disorders, the immune system reacts to normal body tissues. 

An autoimmune disorder may affect one or more organ or tissue types. Organs and tissues commonly affected by utoimmune disorder include:
  • Blood vessels
  • Connective tissues
  • Endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas
  • Joints
  • Muscles
  • Nerves
  • Red blood cells
  • Skin
An autoimmune disorder may result in:
  • The destruction of one or more types of body tissue
  • Abnormal growth of an organ
  • Changes in organ function

What causes the immune system to no longer distinguish between healthy body tissues and antigens is unknown. One theory holds that various microorganisms and drugs may trigger some of these changes, particularly in persons who are genetically prone to utoimmune disorders. Factors which predispose to the development of autoimmunity include genetic factors, age of the individual and environmental factors such as stress and infectious agents.

 
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