Systemic diseases come in a number of forms and types, though all are characterized by one defining feature: they impact multiple parts of the body simultaneously, and usually require a somewhat aggressive and complex treatment plan. Hypertension and diabetes are some of the most well known, in part because of how many people they impact. Autoimmune conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and related acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) are also included in this category, as are inflammatory conditions like lupus. Medical professionals usually take a “whole person” approach to treating systemic problems, and treatments tend to be both comprehensive and long lasting.
What Makes a Disease “Systemic”
In simple terms, a disease is “systemic” if is impacts more than one organ or body system at a time. Usually the ways in which these different parts are impacted varies, too, and at first they may not seem related. The right diagnosis will usually show just one illness, or one illness and a related, offshoot condition, as the main causes.
Breaking systemic diseases down into “types” can be challenging, since each acts in its own unique way and isn’t usually similar to others except to the extent that it impacts daily life or body functioning. Many will overlap into multiple categories, too. Looking at conditions in terms of how they manifest and spread is often the easiest way to get a handle on the category.
Hypertension and Diabetes
Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, may not seem like a disease at first, but it’s usually grouped in the “systemic” category because of its potential to cause problems across the body. Its relationship with more serious conditions like diabetes is also noteworthy. Diabetes is a problem that starts in the pancreas and impacts the levels of insulin that organ produces; insulin is critical to the breakdown and digestion of sugars, and people who have this disease can experience extensive damage if they don’t supplement their insulin stores artificially, usually via injection. There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 is inherited, and comes about all on its own, whereas type 2 is caused by environmental factors like poor diet.
People who suffer from either type are more likely to develop high blood pressure at some point, which often makes the condition worse. Both diabetes and hypertension can be controlled with the aid of medication, dietary, and lifestyle changes including exercise and weight loss. Compliance with a prescribed treatment regimen is essential to alleviate the risk of complications such as stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney issues.
Atherosclerosis is another form of systemic disease that is closely related to instances of hypertension and diabetes. When fatty material, or plaque, accumulates in the arteries, it hardens over time blocking blood flow to various organs and limbs. This can limit functioning and mobility. Perhaps more concerning is the risk that pieces of plaque could break off and travel via the bloodstream to the heart or brain causing heart attack or stroke. Medications and dietary changes are necessary to prevent further plaque accumulation, and, in some cases, surgery is required to remove extensive plaque buildup.
Autoimmune disease is another type of systemic problem, though again this category can be wide ranging. Some common examples of autoimmune conditions are HIV/AIDS, Celiac disease, and Multiple Sclerosis. These sorts of conditions usually happen when the body's immune system confuses healthy elements with damaged or diseased ones, and in effect begins attacking itself as a result. Though there no cures associated with systemic autoimmune diseases, management of symptoms is possible with the appropriate treatment regimen.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, long-term disorder that causes the body's immune system to attack the joints and connective tissues. It’s often considered to be an autoimmune condition but is also commonly defined by the inflammation and pain it causes sufferers. Symptoms of the disease include a limited range of motion, swollen glands, and widespread pain in joints and muscles. A diagnosis is confirmed via a number of tests including a complete blood count (CBC), X-rays, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the affected area. Rheumatoid arthritis requires a life-long plan of treatment that includes a combination of exercise, medications, physical therapy, and, in severe cases, surgery to correct joint damage.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), similarly, is a disease that affects the joints, skin, and, potentially numerous internal organs. It’s most commonly found among African Americans, though anyone can develop it; general symptoms include muscle aches, joint swelling and pain, and sensitivity to sunlight. The severity and type of symptoms experienced vary with each case.
More Focused Problems
Some systemic conditions are more focused on specific body functions or organs. GI tract problems that fall within this category include Chron's disease, which in most cases is limited to the intestinal tract but can cause problems elsewhere if not treated. Anemias, or diseases of the blood, are characterized by persistent fatigue, a pale or gray pallor, and a depressed resistance to infection. Skin conditions such as psoriasis are associated with skin inflammation and lesions. Such chronic conditions require not only long-term medical treatment, but lifestyle changes and preventative measures to lessen the risk of the developing secondary conditions.
Treatment and Prognosis
In general, treatment for systemic disease is considered long-term and usually focuses on controlling symptoms and preventing secondary conditions and complications. There isn’t usually a “one size fits all” answer, and a lot depends on the specific patient. Most systemic conditions can’t actually be healed, which makes the goal more about restoring basic health than ridding the body of the disease completely. Many people can lead long and full lives in spite of their diagnosis, but they usually have to be both careful and intentional about managing their symptoms.