Vasculitis: Rare Rheumatic Diseases

Vasculitis describes a group of rare diseases that involve inflammation of the blood vessels. Since there is more than one type, the disease can be mild or serious. If you've been diagnosed with a form of vasculitis, depending on the type, severity of the disease, and the organs it affects, multiple specialists may be involved in your care. But a rheumatologist usually manages a vasculitis patient's overall care and can answer questions you may have about the disease's symptoms, causes, treatments, and possible complications.

What It Is

Generally defined as an autoimmune disorder, vasculitis is a condition in which the immune system attacks blood vessels. Sometimes it coexists with other rheumatic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Inflammation weakens, thickens, and narrows blood vessels, restricting blood flow to the body's tissues and organs. The condition can affect one or multiple organs, and while some people only ever experience a single episode of symptoms, other people have recurrent symptoms over a lifetime.

What Symptoms People Can Experience

Because vasculitis comes in numerous forms, the symptoms vary depending on the type of vasculitis you have but may include:

  • Nerve pain

  • Numbness or muscle weakness in your hands, feet, arms and legs

  • Rash

  • Generalized fatigue

  • Joint and muscle pain

  • Headache

  • Red spots on your skin

  • Coughing up blood

  • Ulcers

  • Vision problems

What Causes These Uncommon Diseases

While the cause of every type of vasculitis is unknown, heredity seems to play a role in some forms. Reactions to medications or hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections are other possible triggers that may bring on this abnormal immune response.

What Complications May Occur

Complications are always a possibility, especially with certain types of vasculitis, most of which are rare. Severe cases of the disease can cause organ damage or lead to serious blood infections or pneumonia. Sometimes blood clots form in veins or arteries.

What Treatments Doctors Use

The goal of treatment is to control the inflammation and treat any underlying health condition that may be responsible for triggering the immune reaction. Rheumatologists, like those at Arthritis & Rheumatology Associates of South Jersey, usually prescribe corticosteroid drugs to help relieve inflammation. If corticosteroids, such as prednisone and other steroids, prove ineffective in controlling inflammation in the blood vessels, your doctor may prescribe immune-suppressing drugs.

Doctors often treat severe cases of vasculitis with intravenous immunoglobulin or plasma exchange – a procedure that removes harmful autoantibodies from the blood. Autoantibodies are antibodies produced by the immune system that destroy healthy cells in the body. In the severest cases of vasculitis where organ damage or a blockage in a blood vessel occurs, surgery may be needed.

While the condition can be short term or chronic, treatment to prevent permanent damage to the body's nerves and organs offer patients a more positive outcome.

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