Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues as if they were harmful invaders, such as bacteria or cancer cells. This leads to inflammation, destruction of healthy tissue and changes in organ function.
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Autoimmune disorders of the nervous system can attack the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, or the peripheral nervous system, consisting of nerves that connect the CNS with the limbs and organs. Some autoimmune disorders attack only the nervous system while others affect multiple organ systems.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disorder of the CNS. With MS, the immune system attacks the outer protective covering of nerves called the myelin sheath. This process, known as demyelination, results in damaged nerves that cannot transmit messages normally. Demyelination can happen in parts of the CNS that control different body functions, leading to varied symptoms. Examples include:
- Muscle symptoms — poor balance, numbness, difficulty walking, weakness, muscle cramps, muscle stiffness
- Bowel and bladder symptoms — constipation, difficulty emptying the bladder, frequent urge to urinate
- Visual symptoms — double vision, vision loss
- Sensory symptoms — pain, tingling, numbness
- Cognitive symptoms — memory loss, fogginess, moodiness
With myasthenia gravis, the immune system attacks receptors that enable nerves to communicate with skeletal (voluntary) muscles. This chronic disease results in episodes of muscle weakness that worsen with activity and improve with rest. Possible symptoms include:
- Muscle symptoms — weakness, reduced grip strength, difficulty climbing stairs and lifting
- Eye symptoms — drooping of the upper eyelids, double vision
- Other symptoms — shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, altered voice, fatigue
With Guillain-Barré syndrome, the immune system attacks the peripheral nerves. Typical symptoms include weakness that begins in the legs and gradually spreads upward in the body. In severe cases, temporary paralysis might occur. Recovery can take weeks to months and some people experience long-term weakness.
Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) is a rare disorder characterized by swelling of nerve roots and destruction of myelin sheaths. Possible symptoms include numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and possibly paralysis.
Systemic autoimmune diseases, such as lupus erythematosus and Sjögren's syndrome, sometimes affect the CNS and/or the peripheral nerves. Symptoms vary depending on the site(s) affected.
Treatment and Help
Autoimmune diseases involving the nervous system are often chronic, requiring ongoing medical care and monitoring. Treatments vary depending on the specific condition. Physical therapy, occupational therapy and/or speech therapy are often included in the overall treatment plan. Many people with chronic autoimmune nervous system conditions find individual counseling and support groups helpful.