Chronic illness is classified by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics as a chronic disease lasting 3 months or more. While increasingly common with age, chronic illness affects over 40% of the American population.

Unfortunately, since these long-term health conditions are often invisible to the eye, many suffer in silence. For such people, online support groups have paved the way — fostering connection, offering support and eradicating misconceptions on what it means to be chronically ill.

A more specific patient population within the community of chronic illness sufferers are those who cope with autoimmune diseases. This type of health condition occurs when the immune system mistakenly perceives the body’s own tissues as a foreign health threat and, therefore, attacks them.

Falling into a wide array of ill-defined conditions categories, autoimmune disease can be challenging to diagnose due to the lack of aggregated autoimmune data. It’s relevant to note, however, that 24-50 million Americans, or 16% of the US population, suffer from autoimmune diseases.

Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and arthritis are all better-known types of autoimmune diseases, but there are actually over 100 currently recognized in the medical world. A multitude of these remain outside of public discourse. Today, MedTruth recognizes three.

Autoimmune Diseases

Mixed Connective Tissue Disease

Mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD) is a rare disease that is most prevalent in women under the age of 30. An overlap disease, MCTD exhibits features of multiple conditions -- primarily lupus, scleroderma, and polymyositis.

According to Cleveland Clinic, about 25% of patients with one connective tissue disease develop another connective tissue disease over the course of several years, which is why one connective tissue disease may present with symptoms of another.

Some such symptoms include swollen fingers, whitening/numbness of fingertips, joint pain and arthritis, skin abnormalities, muscle weakness, malaise, heartburn, and problems with internal organs. These symptoms are commonly reported by those who suffer with the aforementioned conditions: lupus, systemic sclerosis, and polymyositis.

Kidney disease, neurologic abnormalities, and anemia are less common symptoms. 

Like most autoimmune diseases, the cause of MCTD is currently unknown, but some hypothesize occurrence is related to family history of connective tissue disease. MCTD has also been linked to exposure to certain viruses and chemicals, including polyvinyl chloride and silica. Another cause theory posits that the disease is related to an immune response to ribonucleoprotein (RNP) molecules.

Read more about how RNPs relate to MCTD here.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes

Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes (EDS) are a group of 13 inherited autoimmune conditions of the connective tissue. These connective tissue defects cause various symptoms, including joint hypermobility, easily damaged skin and slow wound healing, periodontal and gastrointestinal problems, fatigue and anxiety.

Currently, the disease has been diagnosed in only 1 in 5,000 people worldwide, but because of the variability of symptoms and difficulty of diagnosis, the prevalence is most likely higher.

EDS is caused by a defect in the production, structure or processing of collagen, the main protein component of connective tissue. It has been associated with mutations on 19 identified genes, some inherited and some through spontaneous mutations.

Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of arthritis primarily affecting the spine. The disease causes inflammation in the spinal joints, leading to chronic pain. 

Over time, spinal inflexibility and hunched posture can develop as a result of AS because inflammation of the connective tissue leads to scarring and eventual formation of extra bone in the spine. 

Besides chronic pain, symptoms include fatigue, stiffness in the back and hips, and eye inflammation, which can cause pain, blurred vision, and light sensitivity. AS is a systemic condition, meaning it affects many parts of the body, so chest, rib, hip, heel, and shoulder pain can occur as well. 

Although a specific cause is unknown, AS is more common in men, and genetics play a role in the onset of the disease. 

a depiction of young woman with chronic illness to represent the three under-recognized chronic illnesses that MedTruth calls attention to today.

Six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic condition -- a figure that will very likely increase with time. Since autoimmune diseases typically have no cure, it’s important to embrace lifestyle habits that can help prevent these diseases while supporting research to learn how to better mitigate them.

For those who have already been diagnosed with a chronic condition, support resources can be found here. Though it is sometimes impossible to control the things that happen in life, we can always control the way we cope. No one should have to suffer alone.