Why You Really Should Start Caring About Autoinflammatory Disease

When it comes to working out, achieving a ridiculously high level of soreness is almost like a badge of honor and, dare we say, enjoyable? Each time you slowly (and painfully) rise from your chair the day after heavy squatting, you’re reminded of your hard work from the day before.

But when that soreness extends beyond the first few days after an intense strength training session, something starts to feel not so right—slight pain in your muscles should only last 24 to 72 hours after working out. What’s more, you might start to feel a migraine and a slight fever. Although you truly killed it during your squat sesh, this definitely doesn’t feel normal.

Of course, your gut reaction is probably that it’s just a bug. But there’s a chance it could be something more serious (and likely entirely out of your control): autoinflammatory disease.

“Autoinflammatory diseases cause systemic inflammation due to problems in the innate immune system,” explains Dr. Junella Chin, an osteopathic physician in New York City. On top of specializing in autoinflammatory and autoimmune diseases, Dr. Chin suffers from the ailment herself. “Autoinflammatory disorders are still underdiagnosed and poorly understood. New autoinflammatory diseases are being discovered by the medical profession. But autoinflammatory diseases are so much more than achy joints and stiffness of the joints—they affect tissues, organs and pain throughout the entire body.”

What’s the deal with autoinflammatory (no, not autoimmune) disease, anyway?  

According to Dr. Chin, autoinflammatory diseases have symptoms similar to autoimmune diseases and are often confused by patients and doctors. This makes diagnosing individuals with chronic pain especially tricky.

“Both autoinmmune and autoinflammatory diseases have an immune system malfunction as the underlying cause of the symptoms,” says Dr. Chin. “Both share some of the same symptoms, such as joint pain, swelling, rashes and fatigue. However, the underlying cause or mechanism of the diseases are different. This difference affects treatment options, long-term health risks, and possible complications from the systemic inflammation.”

As Dr. Chin goes on to explain, autoinflammatory diseases are caused by genetic mutations within cells in the innate immune system, causing the body to become fatigued or sore out of nowhere, even when there is no infection.

And according to Dr. Kimberly Petree, who focuses on more holistic practices, your chance of inheriting the disease could be higher than others, depending on your genetic makeup. “It is mostly broken down into ethnicity” she explains. Dr. Petree says that individuals with Turkish, Armenian, Arab, Sephardic, Jew or Italian ethnicities have a higher chance of inheriting the disease than others.

There are treatments available, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario

If your doctor diagnoses you with autoinflammatory disease, the outlook might feel pretty grim. After all, it’s something you inherit. But according to Dr. Chin, there are several safe methods for reducing the impact of the illness (although it’s not curable).

The initial therapy for all the autoinflammatory syndromes is the control of fever, pain, or the symptoms derived from the inflammatory reactionm like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs),” she explains. “Because most of the damage of autoinflammatory diseases is a direct result of inflammation, medications that directly inhibit inflammation, such as IL-1 antagonists, have been incredibly effective,” she says says. FYI, these are all medications your doctor would prescribe you.

Not all forms of treatment involve drugs, however. Dr. Petree focuses her energy on pinpointing the underlying sources of pain and understanding the mutation on a more holistic level. “What is it in the body’s design that is telling the genes to react in the way that it is? Most importantly, what are the secondary symptoms and what can we do to help alleviate those symptoms?” she says. “Some practitioners have success with an elimination diet, cellular cleanse, rebuilding the acquired immune system and adding specific nutritional supplements that the person is deficient in.”

However, as Drs. Chin and Petree both agree, diagnosing, and subsequently treating, autoinflammatory disease is no easy feat, as the symptoms are often mistaken for autoimmune diseases or even heart disease and diabetes. While the ailment is considered a rare one, you might question whether most cases were inaccurately diagnosed for something else.

Bottom line: If you’re sore for an unusually long period of time, there could be more at play than general stiffness from strength training or a stomach bug. Consult your physician to ensure you’re on the right track for treatment.

Julia Sullivan is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. When she's not picking heavy things up and setting them down again (more commonly known as weight lifting), trying to prepare healthy meals in her doll-sized Manhattan studio or writing about the latest fitness craze, she chronicles her zany adventures as a new New Yorker in her blog, Jules & the City. You can also follow her on Twitter.