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What is an auto-immune disease--and why is it painful?

In all the time this blog has been in existence, we have discussed a number of auto-immune diseases that can cause chronic pain.  Some examples are rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus(SLE), and celiac disease.  But I have never explained the cause of these types of diseases. Once you understand the root cause, you will understand why the people who have these problems are often the victims of chronic pain.

An artist's depiction of an antibody.
Source: Wikimedia

When a person suffers from an auto-immune disease, it is because somewhere along the way their immune system began to see normal body tissue as a foreign body.  Normally, when a foreign body is detected in the human body, a whole chain of biochemical reactions takes place in an effort to destroy that foreign body. In the case of auto-immune disease normal human tissue is perceived as a foreign body, the immune system produces antibodies that seek to find and destroy the invader.

If you find that confusing, think of it like this:  A pedestrian is walking down a busy street. A hit man is poised somewhere along your route, seeking to shoot at a specific person--his target.  He sees the pedestrian coming down the street and mistakenly thinks that our pedestrian is the target. As a result, our fair pedestrian is in the cross hairs. So the hit man aims and fires.  As a result, our poor pedestrian is injured or killed. In the case of an immune disorder, the hit man is the immune system; the pedestrian is a body part (an internal organ, nerve, or a skeletal joint, perhaps)...and the damage is done. This happens over and over again over the course of the disease.  How could that not be painful? Medications and other treatments, such as dietary modification, can help limit, but not stop the progress.

Fortunately, as time goes on, research is helping us to modify the progress of these diseases and the suffering and disability that they cause.  In meantime, I hope I have helped you understand the gravity of these conditions, and why chronic pain management is an important aspect of treatment.


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