Pernicious anemia is a vitamin B-12 deficiency that can contribute to nervous system disorders if left untreated. Pernicious anemia (PA) is an autoimmune disorder where the body does not produce enough red blood cells. Red blood cells are produced with vitamin B-12 and a protein called the intrinsic factor. Vitamin B-12 is found in many foods along with supplements and medications. Vitamin B-12 binds with the intrinsic factor and gets absorbed by the small intestine. If a vitamin B-12 deficiency is not treated, it can lead to complications, such as neurological problems, chronic anemia and even stomach cancer.
Anemia is a condition characterized by low red blood cells. Pernicious anemia is also referred to as megaloblastic anemia, due to the large size of the red blood cells, and is a type of macrocytic anemia.
B-12 deficiency is different from PA although they are often confused. PA is an autoimmune disorder where intrinsic factor is lacking and therefore cannot bind with vitamin B-12 to produce red blood cells. In autoimmune disorders the immune system attacks itself, contributing to health complications. Some cases of PA have been found to be caused by a genetic disorder in children.
Symptoms may occur quite slowly and be difficult to notice, and unfortunately the person may just become accustomed to feeling unwell. Symptoms of PA include:
In rare cases of PA neurological symptoms can occur, such as:
There are many tests that a doctor can perform in order to properly diagnose pernicious anemia. Testing for PA includes:
In a blood count test the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells are counted along with the space the cells use within the blood – this is known as hematocrit.
Stomach damage is diagnosed though a biopsy and checking B-12 and intrinsic factor levels are done through blood work.
If left untreated PA can cause pregnancy complications and neurological problems. PA affects pregnancy by contributing to premature birth due to lack of folate. If the fetus does not receive enough folate, birth defects can occur to the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about your folate levels; they can prescribe supplements.
Neurological problems can also occur with a B-12 deficiency. A person with a B-12 deficiency may notice tingling in their fingers and toes and problems with balance. Mental confusion and forgetfulness can also occur with a B-12 deficiency.
Treatment for pernicious anemia focuses on boosting B-12 levels, which can be done through injections. Improving iron levels as well is important when treating anemia. Because PA is an autoimmune disease it can be present for the rest of your life, so treatment requires lifelong monitoring of the condition and boosting vitamin levels when necessary.
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