Autoimmune Disease & Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral Neuropathy is a common complaint among autoimmune patients. Image courtesy of the Southern Regional Pain Services.

Did you know that autoimmune disease can cause debilitating nerve pain and other nervous system difficulties?

Many medical professionals are unaware that autoimmune conditions can cause a variety of neurological symptoms, or neuropathies, in patients. Though it is commonly known that autoimmune diseases are responsible for joint pain and other kinds of inflammation, nerve pain is often overlooked.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, peripheral neuropathy refers to conditions that involve damage to the peripheral nervous system, which is the vast communication network that sends signals between the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and other parts of the body. Research has shown that over 20 million Americans suffer from some form of peripheral neuropathy, of which there are over 100 known unique types!

How can autoimmune disease cause peripheral neuropathy?

Systemic autoimmune diseases that impact the entire body can cause peripheral neuropathy because of the impact these diseases have on one’s nerves. Conditions like Type 1 diabetes, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis can all cause nerves to become compressed or entrapped as a result of inflamed surrounding tissues.

Some autoimmune diseases aren’t systemic, or body-wide, but rather, target the nervous system directly. For example, in autoimmune conditions like Guillain-Barre, multiple sclerosis (MS) and chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), the immune system may go after the motor nerves, motor fibers, or the myelin sheath coating the nerves. In other instances, the small fibers are attacked, resulting in ongoing chronic pain.

How does peripheral neuropathy manifest?

Peripheral neuropathies can manifest for different people in different ways. For example, rather than a sharp, jabbing, throbbing pain, for some patients it may feel more like prickling, tingling, burning, numbness, or even a complete loss of sensation.

According to the Mayo Clinic, peripheral neuropathy can also make you feel like you’re having a sensation that you’re not; for example, feeling like you’re wearing gloves or socks when you’re not. Peripheral neuropathies can also cause you to feel pain for activities that you know shouldn’t cause pain, such as pain in your feet after they’re underneath a blanket.

What you can do about your autoimmune nerve pain

Medical Interventions

If you have autoimmune nerve pain, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to your primary care physician and see if they can refer you to a neurologist or chronic pain specialist. From there, your physician can help put together a treatment plan to ease your pain.

I have Sjogren’s syndrome and for a period of 7+ years, chronic pain was a regular part of my life. My rheumatologist prescribed me all kinds of joint pain medications, from plaquenil (generic name: hydroxychloroquine) an anti-malarial drug, to prescription-strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), steroid medications, and even chemotherapies! It wasn’t until my pain was identified as nerve pain, not joint pain, that I was able to switch to a medication that worked to reduce my peripheral neuropathy.

In addition, I worked with a neurologist to determine that I had a co-morbid condition, called benign fasciculation syndrome, which was also contributing to my pain. This is important, because many chronic pain sufferers have co-morbidities, like fibromyalgia, which can increase your pain levels or even be the real driving force behind it.

Lifestyle Considerations

Beyond medications, your lifestyle is also an important component of reducing your neuropathic pain. Vitamin deficiencies, for example, have been identified as a cause of peripheral neuropathies. This is because certain B vitamins, including vitamins B1, B6 and B12, as well as vitamin E and niacin, are crucial for maintaining nerve health. Since alcoholism can result in serve vitamin deficiencies, avoiding substance abuse is also key.

Exposure to certain toxins or poisonous substances, such as lead and mercury, can also impact your nerves and cause resulting pain. Finally, trauma and pressure on the nerves can cause neuropathies as well, so alleviating pressure on your nerves, such as decreasing repeated motions on the parts of your body experiencing pain, is important.

Do you have an autoimmune condition(s) and suffer from peripheral neuropathy? What do you do to cope with your chronic pain? Let us know in the comments below!

Christopher Cross Nearly Dies from COVID-19, Temporarily Paralyzed by Autoimmune Disease

Famed singer-songwriter Christopher Cross recently detailed his excruciating battle with COVID-19 in an exclusive interview with CBS.

In the interview, the 69-year-old Grammy winner described his ordeal as ‘the worst 10 days of [his] life,’ saying that he had a number of ‘come to Jesus moments’ where he was left begging for his life from a higher power.

Cross states that in early March, when the pandemic had just struck North America, he and his girlfriend Joy were touring in Mexico City for a concert. Upon their return to the United States, they fell ill and ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

“Nobody knew about masks, or anything like that,” Cross said. “No one wore masks on the plane, no one was doing that. We weren’t made aware that it was a problem.” In total, he and his girlfriend were sick for about three weeks’ time. While Joy continued to get better, Cross got continuously sicker, landing him in the intensive care unit at the hospital for 10 days.

In April, Cross says he finally began to feel better, and ended up going to the supermarket. However, when he returned home, his legs completely gave out. That’s when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a neurological autoimmune disease which causes the body to attack its own nerves. His doctors believe that he developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome as a direct result of COVID-19.

Describing his COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre diagnosis, Cross says tearfully, “I couldn’t walk, I could barely move. And so, it was certainly the darkest of times for me…It really was touch-and-go, and tough.” He became paralyzed from the waist down, and his hands were paralytic as well; being a professional musician, he was concerned he would never be able to play the guitar again.

Guillain-Barre is one of many devastating effects that have been reported by COVID-19 survivors. Early in the pandemic, disturbing reports came out about multisystem inflammatory syndrome, an autoimmune complication in children who had been affected by the virus. It is thought to be similar to Kawasaki disease, an inflammatory condition affecting the heart’s coronary arteries.

Though Cross himself was only temporarily paralyzed by Guillain-Barre, he reports that he is still feeling the impact of this neurological autoimmune disease now. Initially, he used a wheelchair, and though he no longer needs it, he now relies on a cane as his mobility aid. He also suffers from nerve pain, brain fog, memory loss and issues with his speech.

Christopher Cross undergoes physical therapy to heal from the affects of Guillain-Barre and COVID-19.

Last month, Cross shared further details on his Instagram page about his grueling recovery, and paid tribute to the medical staff that helped him during that harrowing time, saying, “I’m grateful for my care team, especially my physical therapist, who has helped me to build strength and walk again.” He continued, “I realize that I am lucky to have survived COVID-19 and be on the mend from GBS. Most of all, I am blessed to have the love and support of many people.”

Though he’s recovered from the coronavirus, and has a 90% to 100% prognosis of making a full recovery from Guillain-Barre, Cross explained that he still wants to share his story to help others. “I felt it was sort of my obligation to share with people: ‘Look, this is a big deal…you’ve got to wear your mask. You’ve got to take care of each other. Because this could happen to you.'”

As part of his healing, Cross is turning to his music, which has always been a source of solace for the singer-songwriter. And, he can’t wait to get back to touring…when it’s safe to do so, of course!

Queen Latifah Raises Awareness about Scleroderma

Queen Latifah with her mother, Rita Owens, who passed away in 2018 after a five-year battle with Scleroderma. Photo credit: Johnny Nunez.

Queen Latifah, an actress, producer and singer, has become an advocate for those living with scleroderma after losing her mother, Rita Owens, to the disease in 2018.

Scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, is an autoimmune disease that translates from Greek to ‘hard skin’, since hardening of the skin is one of the most visible manifestations of the disease, according to the Scleroderma Foundation. Symptoms of scleroderma can vary widely from person to person, and its effects can range from mild to life threatening. One of the most life threatening effects of scleroderma is that it can cause tissues on major organs to harden. In approximately 25% of patients, scleroderma results in interstitial lung disease, which causes scarring of the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe, which may also be fatal for the patient.

Unfortunately, this is what happened to Rita Owens. A lifelong educator, she passed out when teaching in her classroom. Though she had experienced shortness of breath and dry cough for a while, her family had thought it was just a result of her getting older. It wasn’t until she fainted in front of her students that various tests were done and specialists consulted, when she was finally diagnosed with systemic sclerosis-associated interstitial lung disease (SSc-ILD).

Before her passing, Rita Owens was one of approximately 300,000 Americans who suffer from Scleroderma.

In an interview with Good Housekeeping, Latifah said that the diagnosis came as a total shock to her family, saying, “That was terrifying because now we had to figure out, ‘what does it mean to have this autoimmune disease?’ I had never heard of scleroderma before.”

According to the Scleroderma Foundation, scleroderma affects an estimated 300,000 Americans. It’s onset is most frequent between the ages of 25 and 55, and women are four times more likely to have the disease than men. Localized scleroderma is more common in children, whereas adults are more likely to suffer from the systemic version of the disease that is more widespread in the body. Though the exact cause of the disease is unknown, it’s believed that genetic factors can make one more susceptible to the disease, and that it involves an overproduction of collagen.

Since little is known about the disease, Latifah is partnering with Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals to raise awareness as part of the More Than Scleroderma campaign. “The right information and resources are out there and you can start by visiting SclerodermaILD.com. My hope is that I can help make others’ journey with SSc-ILD a little less challenging.”

Though Latifah was devastated to lose her mother after a five-year battle with the disease, she hopes to make a difference in her memory. “I found that knowledge is power when it came to managing my mom’s health, and I want to share what I’ve learned to help others. Anything my mon could do to help someone else have an easier journey, she wanted to be a part of – so it’s important for me to carry on my mom’s mission,” she explained.

To learn more about Scleroderma, visit the Scleroderma Foundation website.