Actor Ashton Kutcher’s recent revelation that he has struggled with vasculitis – which he said “knocked out my vision… hearing… all my equilibrium” – shined a light on a condition that can be difficult to accurately diagnose and complicated to treat. The disease has not received widespread attention prior to Kutcher’s diagnosis, likely due to its rarity: it is believed that fewer than 1% of Americans will be impacted by vasculitis to a degree requiring hospitalization.
So what is vasculitis? It is actually a group of autoimmune disorders that cause inflammation of the blood vessels. One can suffer from vasculitis in the skin (usually presenting as a purple/dark red rash), the nervous system (including the brain, with balance issues, weakness, loss of sensation and headaches being common symptoms), the kidneys (blood in urine), the gastrointestinal tract (stomach pain, blood in stool), and even the lungs and heart (dry cough, coughing up blood).
Depending on the type and location of vasculitis, it can affect large, medium, and/or small blood vessels – and can be life-threatening. (Harold Ramis, costar of Stripes and director/co-writer of Groundhog Day, died of complications from the disease in 2014.)
Kutcher did not identify what kind of vasculitis he has, but said that he has recovered from the condition. That does not, however, mean that he has been “cured.” There are no cures for the disease, but early diagnosis and treatment can usually ease the symptoms and at least slow its progression.
What We Look For
When vasculitis is suspected, a doctor will draw blood to look for signs of inflammation, a low red blood cell count, and certain antibodies that can attack and weaken blood vessels. Imaging techniques like X-rays, ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET; White Plains Hospital is the first and only healthcare facility in the Hudson Valley and Fairfield County to offer that technology) can also help determine what parts of the body are affected.
If detected early, medications – typically high doses of steroids like prednisone, Imuran, and/or Rituxan – can bring vasculitis under control; the exact pharmaceutical approach depends upon the type and severity of the disease and which organs are involved. If the disease has resulted in an aneurysm or blocked arteries, surgery may be necessary.
What causes vasculitis to develop is still a mystery. There may be a genetic predisposition to developing the disease, or one’s environment (pollution, exposure to different chemicals, heavy smoking) may be responsible. The latter can sometimes be preventable and even reversible.
Each patient is different. Again, as with any autoimmune disease, the earlier it can be recognized and treated, the greater the chance it can be brought under control. When in doubt, contact your physician.