What is Antiphospholipid Syndrome (APS)? Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) is an autoimmune disease that can lead to stroke, heart attack, and pregnancy complications such as a blood clot during delivery or miscarriage. APS can also cause blood clots in other body areas, like the arms and legs. If you think you may be at risk for APS because of your ethnicity or family history, your doctor will probably test you for antiphospholipid antibodies.

These tests aren’t diagnostic but indicate a higher risk of developing the condition. In general, most people with antiphospholipid antibodies will never experience any symptoms. If these antibodies cause problems in some people, it’s usually only after an event that triggers their immune system. This article explains what antiphospholipid syndrome is, its common causes and ways to prevent it from developing.

How does Antiphospholipid Syndrome Develop?

APS is caused by a mistake in your immune system that produces antibodies against phospholipids, which are critical for blood clotting and cell membranes in the body. The mistake is usually triggered by an infection, trauma, surgery, pregnancy or a blood transfusion. Once they take hold, these antibodies can cause blood clots to form anywhere in the body, not just in the blood vessels.

The condition can be particularly dangerous during pregnancy because the clots can travel to the placenta and block blood flow to the fetus. The best way to understand APS is to compare it to other autoimmune diseases like lupus caused by damage from the body’s antibodies. APS is different because it doesn’t damage the body; it just interferes with normal clotting in the blood.

What are the Symptoms of APS?

Some people with APS don’t experience any symptoms. Others experience episodes of symptoms that can range anywhere from mild to severe. Some of the most common symptoms are Blood clots, strokes, cardiac arrests and hypertensive disordersIn some cases, APS can cause blood clots that lead to strokes, cardiac arrests, or hypertensive disorders. Without treatment, these clots can lead to death. 

  • Painful swelling in the legs, ankles and feet: This is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and it occurs when clots form in the blood vessels that run through the legs.
  • Unexplained infertility: About one-third of women who suffer from APS experience infertility. 
  • Miscarriage: APS that isn’t treated can also increase the risk of miscarriage.

Risk Factors For APS

  • If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to develop APS in your late 30s or 40s. Conversely, men are more likely to develop APS between their late 20s and early 40s. 
  • APS is much more common in people of Asian or African descent than in European descent. 
  • Certain medical conditions, like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney disease, are also linked to an increased risk of APS. 
  • Likewise, people with a history of blood clots, stillbirths or miscarriages are more likely to develop APS. 
  • APS can be a risk for people with autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome and scleroderma.

The Importance of Testing

Your doctor may recommend testing for antiphospholipid antibodies if you have a family history of APS. Most antiphospholipid antibodies are benign and don’t mean you’ll ever develop APS. However, some are associated with a higher risk for thrombosis or blood clots.

This information can help your doctor decide whether to follow a more aggressive treatment or monitoring plan. Testing is particularly important if you’ve experienced blood clots, stillbirths or miscarriages, or a medical condition like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

Treating APS: Options And Limitations

APS usually isn’t treated with medications. Instead, doctors focus on preventing and managing complications. If you have mild APS, you may only need to monitor your blood levels and avoid activities that put you at high risk for blood clots. If you have moderate-to-severe APS, your doctor may prescribe blood thinners to help prevent blood clots from forming.

These drugs aren’t perfect and can sometimes cause bleeding, but they’re still the best way to manage the clot risk. Some people with APS decide to undergo an exchange transfusion, which replaces the patient’s blood with the donor’s blood. This procedure is an extreme option that’s only used in rare cases.

Ways to Prevent APS?

Although there’s no sure way to prevent APS, people with a family history of APS can take a few steps to lower their risk of developing the condition. Since APS develops due to an infection or trauma, people with a history of APS should avoid infections like the plague. People with a history of blood clots in the legs should also be extra mindful of sitting for long periods.

Finally, if you experience pregnancy complications such as miscarriage or stillbirth or you’ve been diagnosed with APS, talk to your doctor about ways to prevent it from coming back.

Final Words: Understanding Antiphospholipid Syndrome (APS)

If you experience symptoms of APS, visit your doctor immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent serious complications from developing. If you’re at risk for APS, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms so you can get treatment as soon as possible. APS is not something you want to take lightly because it’s a serious condition that can lead to serious complications.


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