Signs and Symptoms of Hemochromatosis
People affected with hemochromatosis begin accumulating iron from a young age but the symptoms do not appear until later in life. Men can begin to show symptoms in their late 20s or early 30s but more commonly the symptoms don’t appear until they are in their 40s or 50s. Women generally do not show any symptoms until 10 – 15 years after the cessation of menstruation (generally at menopause). This later age of onset in women is due to the iron loss that occurs each month during menstruation. The symptoms vary between individuals, making diagnosis a difficult task.
The most common symptoms of hemochromatosis are fatigue and joint pain, particularly in the hands, hips, knees and/or ankles. However, these symptoms are commonly seen in other diseases too so an accurate diagnosis is often delayed. The ‘Iron Fist’ is a symptom that is specific to hemochromatosis but is not experienced by all affected people. The ‘Iron Fist’ refers to pain in the joints of the pointer and middle fingers. Other symptoms of hemochromatosis can include a lack of energy, abdominal pain, memory problems, depression, decreased sex drive, shortness of breath and heart flutters.
If hemochromatosis is left untreated, serious health complications can occur. These complications affect the endocrine system, the heart, liver, spleen, gall bladder, skin, bones and joints. Endocrine problems include an increased risk of diabetes, hypothyroidism, infertility, impotence and hormone imbalances. An irregular heart rate, enlarged heart and heart failure can all occur. The liver and spleen can become enlarged and develop cirrhosis (scarring), diseases or cancer. Sometimes the skin develops an abnormal bronze, reddish or grey color and bones and joints are often affected by osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.
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Ajioka RS, Kushner JP (2003). Clinical consequences of iron overload in hemochromatosis homozygotes. Blood 101(9): 3351-3353.