Diagnostic Studies And Procedures
Too much iron in the blood can be verified through blood tests and a liver biopsy, which will reveal the excessive iron deposits. A liver specimen is obtained by means of a thin, hollow aspiration needle. Unfortunately, the disease often goes undiagnosed until it causes widespread damage, because early symptoms are easily mistaken for those of rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis, or heart disease, and doctors often order extensive tests for these other diseases. With increasing awareness of hemochromatosis, however, a number of diagnostic laboratories have added a screening test for high iron levels to their list of routine blood studies. Patients who are experiencing symptoms of mysterious origin, or are visiting a doctor for a routine checkup, should request this blood test.
Other Causes of Iron Overload
Frequent blood transfusions, liver disease, or prolonged and excessive intake of iron supplements can result in iron overload without the inherited gene.
The only effective treatment is blood letting, or phlebotomy. In times past, this procedure was widely practiced to treat a variety of ailments, often with disastrous results. With the advent of more effective treatments, bloodletting was deemed a form of quackery, so today, many patients with iron over load are skeptical when their doctors prescribe it. But removing a pint of blood once or twice a week for several weeks usually brings iron levels down to normal. More severe cases may require removal of larger amounts over two or three years. (The blood can be donated to a blood bank if the patient has no blood borne diseases.) Blood letting is then repeated from time to time whenever it’s necessary. In most cases, bloodletting therapy can reverse some heart damage, reduce the size of the liver and spleen, and return liver function to normal. Drugs may be prescribed, depending upon manifestations of the iron overload. For example, deferoxamine is prescribed to remove excessive iron in patients with severe heart disease.
Nutrition therapy is an important adjunct to medical care. People who are genetically predisposed to conserve iron should consult with a clinical dietitian or qualified nutritionist, who will design a diet that incorporates substitutes for high iron foods, especially red meat, liver, egg yolks, and cereals fortified with iron. Persons with iron overload should also avoid vitamin C supplements, which increase the body’s iron metabolism.
Read all food labels carefully, and avoid products, especially cereals and breads, that are fortified with iron. If you are taking a daily multiple vitamin, make sure it does not contain iron. Check with your doctor to ascertain that other supplements are safe.