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Overview of Autoimmune Disorders of Connective Tissue

by Rula A. Hajj-ali, MD

In an autoimmune disorder, antibodies or cells produced by the body attack the body’s own tissues (see Autoimmune Disorders). Many autoimmune disorders affect connective tissue in a variety of organs. Connective tissue is the structural tissue that gives strength to joints, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels.

In autoimmune disorders, inflammation and the immune response may result in connective tissue damage, not only in and around joints but also in other tissues, including vital organs, such as the kidneys and organs in the gastrointestinal tract. The sac that surrounds the heart (pericardium), the membrane that covers the lungs (pleura), and even the brain can be affected. The type and severity of symptoms depend on which organs are affected.

An autoimmune disorder of connective tissue (also called an autoimmune rheumatic disorder or autoimmune collagen-vascular disorder) is diagnosed on the basis of its particular symptom pattern, the findings during a physical examination, and the results of laboratory tests. Sometimes the symptoms of one disease overlap with those of another so much that doctors cannot make a distinction. In this case, the disorder may be called undifferentiated connective tissue disease or an overlap disease.

Many autoimmune disorders of connective tissue are treated with corticosteroids, other drugs that suppress the immune system, or both. People who take corticosteroids are at risk of fractures related to osteoporosis. To prevent osteoporosis, these people may be given the drugs used to treat osteoporosis, such as bisphosphonates and supplemental vitamin D and calcium. People whose immune system is suppressed are often given drugs to prevent infections such as by Pneumocystis jirovecii (a fungus).