Jodi Stanley sits in the grass with her dad as her daughter blows bubbles.
After years of uncertainty, Jodi Stanley learned she had an autoimmune condition, although it’s still unknown which one. She manages her symptoms by making healthy lifestyle choices. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Jodi Stanley and her doctors are still trying to figure out what’s causing a variety of symptoms that have changed her life.

“In 2013 I started experiencing a lot of weird symptoms,” Stanley said. “I’ve been a runner for a long time, but now I felt like I had run a marathon after going up just one flight of stairs.”

Initially, she attributed her leg fatigue, which only occurred on her left side, to the punishing training she did throughout the years.

But that didn’t explain her other issues: After working all day on her computer, her left arm was exhausted. She found herself watching TV with her left eye closed to avoid double vision. And she developed a searing pain in her left ear.

The quest for answers

Stanley was most concerned about her vision, so she began by asking an optometrist for new glasses, but was soon in the office of a neuro-ophthalmologist due to cranial nerve palsy.

He thought she might have myasthenia gravis, but the tests weren’t conclusive. A dose of steroids helped tremendously as a short-term measure.

“I felt fantastic for the first time in a year-and-a-half,” Stanley said. “It made me realize how fatigued I had been.”

Eventually she went to Paul Twydell, DO, a Spectrum Health neuro-muscular specialist who is helping her dig deeper into the cause of her issues. Stanley was thankful when MRIs ruled out a brain tumor and multiple sclerosis.

It appears she has an autoimmune condition.

Today about 50 million Americans—most of them women—suffer from autoimmune ailments, which develop when their immune system begins attacking their bodies, often for no apparent reason.

“Autoimmune diseases tend to come on more rapidly than other conditions,” Dr. Twydell said. “Patients may have a period with a lot of symptoms. Then, it may settle down for a while before the symptoms come back.”

For patients like Stanley, neurologists try to see what part of the nervous system is involved. This may require an imaging study, like an MRI, a nerve conduction study, a spinal tap, lab tests or a nerve or muscle biopsy, according to Dr. Twydell.

Don’t ignore what you can’t explain

If you’re plagued by random health issues, don’t brush them off or attribute them to stress. They could be the early warning signs of an autoimmune issue.

If you have the following symptoms, ask your doctor for help:

  • Fatigue
  • Bowel problems (diarrhea or constipation)
  • Weight changes (gaining or losing weight without explanation)
  • Unexplained skin rashes or hair loss
  • Low-grade fever
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle aches and stiff joints
  • Menstrual problems or multiple miscarriages
  • Easy bruising
  • Weakness or numbness
  • Mouth sores

Some of the most common autoimmune issues include rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, anemia, Type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, alopecia, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, Graves disease and Guillain-Barre syndrome. Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia may also have an auto-immune link.

“Anytime someone has numbness, tingling, dizziness, blurred vision, weakness or trouble swallowing, they should be seen,” Dr. Twydell said. “An autoimmune issue can have stroke-like symptoms. But typically a stroke starts abruptly, while autoimmune issues start gradually and build up to something major.”

Getting through each day

Although autoimmune issues are chronic conditions without a cure, the right treatment and lifestyle changes can help, especially during flare-ups.

Today, Stanley eats healthy and gets extra sleep. And she tries to avoid getting stressed or overly busy, which make her symptoms worse.

“The unpredictable effects and many unknowns are frustrating,” Stanley said. “Your best approach is to be grateful for every disease that is ruled out, treat what you can and adjust to the rest.”

Have questions about your health? Contact the Spectrum Health Neurology team or the Spectrum Health Allergy/Immunology team for more information or to make an appointment.