What is Spoon Theory?

The term ‘spoon theory’ was coined by Long Island, New York based blogger Christine Miserandino, a chronic illness advocate living with systemic lupus erythmatosus (SLE). The theory states that those with chronic illness only have so many ‘spoons’, or units of energy, available to them in order to accomplish their daily tasks. This is in contrast to healthy, able-bodied individuals, who have a much greater supply of ‘spoons’ that allow them to achieve all that they need to get done throughout the day.

Christine first created the term after she tried explaining to a friend what it was like to live with the autoimmune disease lupus. After having some difficulty explaining how she lived with chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and challenging symptoms, she realized that it would be easier to explain her disease if she had a visual aid. This is when she handed her friend 12 spoons to represent units of energy, and took each spoon away as her friend described every activity that she had to do throughout the day, including routine items like doing the groceries, cooking a meal, showering, and even getting out of bed. Her friend quickly realized that she didn’t have enough spoons to complete all the necessary tasks in her daily life, and had to make difficult choices, like whether to eat dinner or run an errand instead.

Christine later decided to write a post on her blog But You Don’t Look Sick, to describe her interaction with her friend and the creation of the ‘spoon theory’. This also lead to the development of the term ‘spoonie’, to describe someone with a chronic illness who has to make difficult choices throughout their daily lives on what they will and won’t be able to do.

I think that spoon theory is an excellent way to describe what it’s like to live with an autoimmune disease to any healthy, able-bodied person who may not otherwise understand what you’re going through. This is especially true if you have an invisible illness (when you don’t have any obvious outward symptoms), and others perceive you as lazy, inconsistent, or having poor time management skills.

One of the most difficult aspects of having limited ‘spoons’ is that some friends or family members may not understand why you can’t do certain things, like go out for a fun night on the town on a Friday after work, or why you can’t run a 5k with them, or be a bridesmaid at their week-long destination wedding. These are tough decisions that any spoonie or autoimmune warrior has to make, but, they’re just part of the reality of living with a chronic illness.

On a more positive note, sometimes, have limited ‘spoons’ does force us to choose the things that really matter in life. Maybe you don’t want to go to your Great Aunt’s potluck, but if you were perfectly healthy, you would have begrudgingly gone, just to be nice. But when you live with chronic pain, fatigue and other symptoms, you don’t have the luxury of being a ‘yes-man’ (or woman). You have to decide what is worth your time and what isn’t.

This sentiment was echoed by Estrella Bibbey in the video, Sjogren’s Syndrome: A Place to Begin, when describing her life with Sjogren’s Syndrome. “This kind of illness makes you slow down, it makes you choose wisely, and it makes you want to conserve your energy for the very best things,” she said. “I don’t live my life just willy-nilly, [like] we’re going to do whatever and just pick up the pieces later. It’s a more controlled experience, but we choose the really good things and we make sure our energies are focused on the really good events. When we commit to going to a birthday party, or some other kind of social event, we commit to it and we are really excited to be there, and we made a space in our lives to be there.”

If you’re a spoonie (like me) and I had to give you one piece of advice, I would say to practice self-care, be kind to yourself, and make sure you’re using your limited spoons wisely.

What do you think of the term ‘spoon theory’? Does it accurately describe your life as an autoimmune warrior? Have you ever had to make a difficult decision about using your ‘spoons’? Comment below and let me know!

Autoimmune Disease on the Rise in the United States

An April 2020 study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology suggests that autoimmune disease is on the rise in the United States.

In the study, researchers found that the prevalence of the most common biomarkers of autoimmune disease, called antinuclear antibodies (ANAs), is significantly increasing in the U.S. overall as well as among certain populations. These affected populations include:

  • Men
  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Adolescents
  • Adults 50 year and older

The researchers examined over 14,000 patients ages 12 and up over the course of three time periods spanning 30 years. In this time frame, they discovered that the overall frequency of ANAs in their test subjects went from 11% affected individuals to almost 16% affected. The worst affected population was the adolescent group, who experienced a nearly three-fold increase in ANA rates over the course of the study period.

While the exact cause of autoimmune disease remains unknown, many scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible. However, the researchers in the study state that because people have not changed much genetically over the past 30 years, it is more likely that lifestyle or environmental factors are responsible for the ANA increases.

Christine Parks, PhD, is one of the researchers involved in the study who focuses on the environmental causes of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases. “These new findings…will help us design studies to better understand why some people develop autoimmune diseases,” she said. She also added that there are over 100 chronic, debilitating autoimmune conditions that could stand to benefit from further research.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, a Maryland-based science journalist and author of the book The Autoimmune Epidemic, believes that our ever-increasing exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and viruses, coupled with stress, dietary and other lifestyle factors, is primarily to blame for the increase in autoimmune disease. She also points out that there may be a connection between autoimmune disease and allergies, which are also skyrocketing.

Nakazawa herself suffers from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a paralyzing autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis (MS). In her latest book, The Last Best Cure, she states that experts predict that the number of Americans who suffer from chronic conditions will rise an astonishing 37% by 2030.

While this may not sound like positive news, one good thing is that with an increase in autoimmune disease, more scientists, medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies will be encouraged to undertake research to find treatments and, ultimately, a cure for autoimmunity. I personally am hopeful that we will see enormous strides in biotechnology in my lifetime.

Are you surprised by the increase in autoimmune disease in the U.S.? Let us know in the comments below!

10 Facts About Hidradenitis Suppurativa

According to the Hidrandenitis Suppurativa (HS) Foundation, HS is a chronic, painful skin disease that causes boils to form in the folds of the skin and has a profound impact on quality of life. Read out to find out 10 facts about this chronic autoimmune condition.

1. Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS) is a common disease

Although HS was once thought to be a rare disease, peer-reviewed medical journals have stated that HS affects approximately 1-4% of the world’s population, when taking into account all the stages of the disease. This means that there are millions of individuals living with this skin condition.

2. It affects certain areas of the skin

HS commonly occurs in the areas of the skin that rub together, such as the armpits (axillae), groin, buttocks, and underneath the breasts. These areas are rich in apocrine glands, which produce sweat, and have many hair follicles which can get obstructed. These obstructed follicles will then progress into pus-filled abscesses and boils. The boils can feel like hard lumps, or clusters of inflamed lesions and sinus tracts (called ‘tunnels’) which give off chronic seepage and can scar.

3. HS is classified into three stages

HS is classified into three stages called Hurley Staging. This classification method allows medical professionals to assign a severity level to HS. The three stages are:

  • Hurley stage I – a single lesion without a sinus tract (‘tunnel’) formation
  • Hurley stage II – multiple lesions or areas impacted, but with limited tunneling
  • Hurley stage III – multiple lesions involving an entire area of the body, with more extensive sinus tract formations and scarring.

Keep in mind that these stages don’t necessarily take into account disease activity, measure pain, or the impact on one’s quality of life.

4. There are several risk factors

The exact cause of HS is unknown. However, experts believe that the condition is connected to hormones, genetics, and autoimmune issues. HS is not caused by an infection or poor hygiene, and it isn’t contagious.

Though the exact cause isn’t known, there are a number of risk factors that can increase one’s likelihood of developing the disease, including:

  • Sex – Women are about three times more likely to develop HS than men.
  • Age – HS most commonly occurs in women between the ages of 18 and 29. It rarely occurs before puberty, though individuals who develop the condition at an early age may be at an increased risk of developing more widespread disease.
  • Family history – It’s believed that inherited genes may play a role.

5. Lifestyle factors also impact the disease

There are also lifestyle factors that can impact the disease, including:

  • Obesity – Several studies have shown a correlation between being overweight and HS. This may be due to increased friction on one’s body and being more prone to excessive perspiration.
  • Smoking – Smoking tobacco has been linked to HS as well.

As a result, it’s recommended for patients to maintain a healthy weight and to refrain from smoking.

6. HS can cause various complications

Persistent HS, especially when severe, can cause a number of complications, including skin infections and scars. The scarring can also interfere with lymph drainage, which can result in swelling in the arms, legs, or genital region. Sores and scar tissue can also restrict one’s movements, or make it too painful to move, especially when the disease impacts the armpits or groin area.

7. HS can also impact one’s mental health

HS can also impact one’s self-esteem and well being. For example, the location of the skin lesions, as well as issues like drainage, scarring, and malodorous smell can cause embarrassment, and make patients reluctant to go out in public or engage in activities that may reveal their skin, such as swimming. The resulting social isolation can lead to overwhelming sadness or even depression. In fact, many patients with HS go undiagnosed for years because they are too ashamed to speak with a health care provider about their symptoms.

8. HS occurs in tandem with several conditions

According to the HS Foundation, research has found that certain health conditions (called ‘comorbidities’) commonly occur in tandem with HS. These conditions include metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, acne, and more. HS is sometimes referred to in other countries as ‘acne inversa’, although it isn’t a type of acne.

9. There is no cure, but treatments can help

Treatment for HS depends on what clinical stage a patient is in and the severity of their condition. Mild HS is treated with antibacterial soaps, anti-inflammatory medications, and warm compresses. It’s also recommended to wear loose-fitting clothing. More severe forms of the disease may require antibiotics, oral retinoids, anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, hormones, and TNF-alpha inhibitors. Other treatments include laser hair removal, radiation therapy, carbon dioxide laser therapy and surgery to remove the affected area.

10. There is hope

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Hidradenitis Suppurativa, visit the Hope for HS website, which has an extensive library of patient resources, including information about wound care and listings for nationwide support groups. The organization also lists out clinical trials that patients can participate in, as well as recent research and news items, so that you can stay on top of the latest developments about the disease.

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