Pernicious Anemia is a type of anemia in which the intestines cannot effectively absorb vitamin B12, which results in a reduced count of red blood cells. In general, anemia is a condition that involves a lack of red blood cells, which are essential for transporting oxygen to the tissues of the body. There are various types of anemia, but pernicious anemia is a type of vitamin B12 anemia that is typically caused by an autoimmune problem. Here, we’ll discuss this rare condition, how it’s diagnosed, and how it can be treated.
About Pernicious Anemia
When a person is diagnosed with pernicious anemia, their body cannot make enough red blood cells because it doesn’t have the necessary vitamin B12 to make them. Vitamin B12 is found in many foods, but people with this condition aren’t able to properly absorb this nutrient from food. The result is that they can’t make enough healthy red blood cells to serve their body’s needs.
Our red blood cells require vitamin B12 for normal cell division. A lack of the nutrient causes red blood cells to be too large. Cells that are too large may fail to get out of the bone marrow where they’re produced. A reduced count of red blood cells means that there are fewer cells able to carry oxygen to the body’s essential organs like the brain and heart as well as other organs and tissues.
What Causes Pernicious Anemia?
Pernicious anemia occurs because the body cannot absorb vitamin B12 from foods to adequately produce red blood cells. This is a rare problem, but an autoimmune response often causes it. Typically, pernicious anemia occurs because the protein in the stomach known as ‘intrinsic factor’ is diminished because the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks it or the processes that produce it. Intrinsic factor is needed to help the body absorb vitamin B12. Without enough of this protein, the body, ultimately, can’t make an adequate supply of red blood cells.
Some cases of pernicious anemia involve an inherited disorder. Sometimes children are born with a disorder that prevents the body from making intrinsic factor. This condition is called congenital pernicious anemia.
Other cases may relate to diet; for instance, a person can suffer from pernicious anemia if they don’t get enough vitamin B12 in their diet. A person’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 can also be compromised if another health condition is present such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or HIV. Some medications can lead to vitamin B12 malabsorption in the small intestine. A tapeworm infection can also cause pernicious anemia. In some cases, gastric bypass procedures can also lead to this condition.
Are There Risk Factors for Pernicious Anemia?
Medical researchers have found that there are certain risk factors that may make a person more susceptible to the development of this condition. These risk factors include:
- Northern European / Scandinavian descent
- Family history of pernicious anemia
- Having type 1 diabetes
- Diagnosed with celiac disease or Crohn’s disease
- Aged 60 or over
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Pernicious Anemia?
Many of the signs and symptoms of pernicious anemia occur with all forms of anemia. Others are specifically related to the lack of vitamin B12 that occurs with this disorder. People who suffer from pernicious anemia may experience extreme fatigue, which is common to all forms of anemia. People feel tired because the body doesn’t have an adequate supply of red blood cells needed to carry oxygen to its organs and tissues.
Other signs and symptoms of pernicious anemia include:
- Chest pain
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
While these symptoms can occur with any form of anemia, pernicious anemia also features symptoms that are particularly associated with a lack of vitamin B12. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Hands and feet numbness
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of reflexes
- Problems with balance
- Loss of appetite
- Smooth and thick red tongue
Pernicious anemia can cause complications such as heart murmurs and even heart failure. Untreated pernicious anemia can be deadly. Fortunately, treatment can alleviate these symptoms, and people can usually recover to lead a normal life.
How Is Pernicious Anemia Diagnosed?
Test results can support a diagnosis of pernicious anemia; however, many doctors may suspect the condition based on the symptoms present in the individual and a physical exam. Tests are necessary because the physician will need to know if the disorder is caused by a lack of intrinsic factor or something else. Doctors also need to learn how severe the condition is in order to provide the best possible treatment. Ulta Lab Tests can support a diagnosis of pernicious anemia. Its tests are reliable and easy to use.
What Are the Diagnostic Tests Available to Diagnose Pernicious Anemia?
Healthcare provides rely on blood tests to make a diagnosis of pernicious anemia as well as to understand what may be causing it. Each test can pinpoint some factor related to pernicious anemia, such as the presence of certain antibodies or abnormal blood cell counts. High levels of some elements like homocysteine can lead to a diagnosis of this condition. Some of the tests used most frequently to diagnose this disease are:
Complete Blood Count Panel
A complete blood count (CBC) tests various parts of the blood, such as hemoglobin and hematocrit. A low level of either of these elements may be indicative of anemia. Hemoglobin is a protein that’s rich in iron and helps the red blood cells deliver oxygen to parts all over the body. Hematocrit measures how much space in the blood is taken up by red blood cells.
A CBC test provides a count of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood. If these counts are not in the normal range, a problem like pernicious anemia is likely present. Sometimes abnormal results can indicate a different problem, such as an infection.
Finally, a CBC provides a measurement of red blood cell size. A telltale feature of pernicious anemia is red blood cells that are larger than normal.
Other Tests to Diagnose Pernicious Anemia
If the CBC reveals the presence of pernicious anemia, more tests will be ordered to determine what is causing the disorder to occur. For instance, if a test uncovers intrinsic factor antibodies, the pernicious anemia is caused by an autoimmune response. Bone marrow tests may also be ordered to test the size of the marrow cells, which are typically larger in cases involving pernicious anemia.
Here is an overview of various tests used to diagnose pernicious anemia:
Note the following tests that rule out iron deficiency anemia:
- Iron Total: iron and iron-binding capacity tests will indicate if pernicious anemia is present.
- TIBC: this test measures iron binding capacity; a poor measure can indicate pernicious anemia.
- Ferritin: Pernicious anemia can cause low ferritin levels; if ferritin is tested low, the condition may be diagnosed.
- Transferrin: this protein will be found in the blood if iron is low; low iron can indicate pernicious anemia.
How Is Pernicious Anemia Treated?
People who are diagnosed with pernicious anemia may require lifelong treatment that includes vitamin B12 injections. Treatment should prevent the anemia as well as its symptoms. If the cause of the pernicious anemia can be found, it may also be treated--if possible. Healthcare providers will also need to manage any complications that occur, such as heart or nerve damage.
If you are diagnosed with pernicious anemia, your doctor may recommend either vitamin B12 pills or vitamin B12 injections. If your condition is severe, injections are usually prescribed first. Healthcare providers will inject vitamin B12 weekly or even daily in order to achieve the optimum amount of this vitamin in the bloodstream.
Once the vitamin B12 has reached a normal level, injections may only be required on a monthly basis. In cases that are less severe, patients may be prescribed pills or even a nose spray containing vitamin B12. Most people will experience symptom alleviation after a mere few days of treatment. Over the course of treatment, healthcare providers may adjust the dosing of vitamin B12 depending on the patient’s needs.
Sometimes other treatments are needed to address other root causes of the pernicious anemia or to treat other conditions that the patient is experiencing, such as celiac disease. In many cases, patients may be able to administer their own injections of vitamin B12. Depending on the patient’s condition, they may receive these shots at home from a caregiver or may wish to travel to their health clinic to receive the injections.
What about Pernicious Anemia Complications?
Health complications can occur as a result of untreated pernicious anemia. These might include heart irregularities or even heart failure. On the other hand, even with treatment, a person may experience health complications related to their anemia. For instance, gastric cancer is a dangerous complication that can occur with this condition. Doctors will monitor patients for signs of this condition.
Other complications may include gastrointestinal problems, neurological problems (i.e. memory loss), and peripheral nerve damage.
Living with Pernicious Anemia
People with pernicious anemia often live normal lives with treatment; however, they may require lifelong treatment and will need routine monitoring to ensure that no complications are arising and that the optimum dose of vitamin B12 is being provided. If you or a loved one is diagnosed with this condition, it’s important to meet with your physician on a regular basis to ensure that it’s managed effectively.
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