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Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology

Conquest - Fall 2013

When joints, tendons and bones creak

By David Berkowitz

Ever wake up in the middle of the night with an extreme burning sensation in your big toe?

Did it feel so swollen and tender that even the weight of your bed sheet was too much to take?

Gout can be debilitating for the healthiest of people. But for those already dealing with cancer treatment and its often challenging side effects, this and other forms of arthritis may test their powers of coping both physically and mentally.

An eye on medications

There are more than 100 disorders that typically affect joints, tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles, which fall into the categories of arthritis or rheumatic diseases. Some of these may also involve internal organs.

A team of MD Anderson experts in Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology help address these conditions. The goal is to manage the comorbidities and ensure the best overall quality of life for patients.

“Our main concern is that patients receive medical treatment for these disorders that’s compatible with their cancer treatment and doesn’t place them at risk for side effects from multiple medications,” says Maria Suarez-Almazor, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chief of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology.

A range of issues

Maria Suarez-Almazor, M.D., Ph.D. (left), professor, 
discusses research protocols with Jean Tayar, M.D.
(center), assistant professor, and Huifang Lu, M.D., Ph.D.,
associate professor. The three work together in 
Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology, a section of 
General Internal Medicine.
Photo: Wyatt McSpadden

Suarez-Almazor is one of three full-time rheumatologists who see patients in MD Anderson’s outpatient clinic and in the hospital to address a range of issues, including:

  • Complications from treatments, such as gout, osteoporosis or infections to joints
  • Managing other rheumatic disorders, like arthritis or lupus
  • Treating local problems, such as rotator cuff tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome

“We help diagnose diseases by aspirating fluid into swollen joints to check for infection and by performing imaging with ultrasound, which can be done in the clinic so it’s easier for the patient,” Suarez- Almazor says. “Ultrasound can also guide when we give steroid injections to treat arthritis or tendinitis.”

The team’s allergy and immunology clinic provides diagnosis and treatment for allergic and hypersensitivity reactions related to drugs or other allergens, for immunodeficiencies caused by chemotherapy and for autoimmune disorders.

Normally, the immune system’s white blood cells help protect the body from harmful substances called antigens. In patients with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can’t tell the difference between healthy body tissue and antigens. The result is an immune response that destroys normal body tissues.

Through their research, Suarez-Almazor and her team hope to find other more effective interventions to relieve the comorbidities that affect the joints, tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles — and continue to improve patients’ quality of life.

     Related story: Creating an umbrella of care

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center