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Your body’s immune system protects you from disease and infection. But if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake. Autoimmune diseases can affect many parts of the body.
No one is sure what causes autoimmune diseases. They do tend to run in families. Women – particularly African-American, Hispanic-American, and Native-American women – have a higher risk for some autoimmune diseases.
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases, and some have similar symptoms. This makes it hard for your health care provider to know if you really have one of these diseases, and if so, which one. Getting a diagnosis can be frustrating and stressful. Often, the first symptoms are fatigue, muscle aches and a low fever. The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling.
The diseases may also have flare-ups, when they get worse, and remissions, when symptoms get better or disappear. Treatment depends on the disease, but in most cases one important goal is to reduce inflammation. Sometimes doctors prescribe corticosteroids or other drugs that reduce your immune response.
Neuromyelitis optica is an autoimmune disorder that affects the nerves of the eyes and the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body’s own tissues and organs. In neuromyelitis optica, the autoimmune attack causes inflammation of the nerves, and the resulting damage leads to the signs and symptoms of the condition.Neuromyelitis optica is characterized by optic neuritis, which is inflammation of the nerve that carries information from the eye to the brain (optic nerve). Optic neuritis causes eye pain and vision loss, which can occur in one or both eyes.Neuromyelitis optica is also characterized by transverse myelitis, which is inflammation of the spinal cord. The inflammation associated with transverse myelitis damages the spinal cord, causing a lesion that often extends the length of three or more bones of the spine (vertebrae). In addition, myelin, which is the covering that protects nerves and promotes the efficient transmission of nerve impulses, can be damaged. Transverse myelitis causes weakness, numbness, and paralysis of the arms and legs. Other effects of spinal cord damage can include disturbances in sensations, loss of bladder and bowel control, uncontrollable hiccupping, and nausea. In addition, muscle weakness may make breathing difficult and can cause life-threatening respiratory failure in people with neuromyelitis optica.There are two forms of neuromyelitis optica, the relapsing form and the monophasic form. The relapsing form is most common. This form is characterized by recurrent episodes of optic neuritis and transverse myelitis. These episodes can be months or years apart, and there is usually partial recovery between episodes. However, most affected individuals eventually develop permanent muscle weakness and vision impairment that persist even between episodes. For unknown reasons, approximately nine times more women than men have the relapsing form. The monophasic form, which is less common, causes a single episode of neuromyelitis optica that can last several months. People with this form of the condition can also have lasting muscle weakness or paralysis and vision loss. This form affects men and women equally. The onset of either form of neuromyelitis optica can occur anytime from childhood to adulthood, although the condition most frequently begins in a person’s forties.Approximately one-quarter of individuals with neuromyelitis optica have signs or symptoms of another autoimmune disorder such as myasthenia gravis, systemic lupus erythematosus, or Sjögren syndrome. Some scientists believe that a condition described in Japanese patients as optic-spinal multiple sclerosis (or opticospinal multiple sclerosis) that affects the nerves of the eyes and central nervous system is the same as neuromyelitis optica.