What is Hemophilia?
Hemophilia is a hereditary disorder in which one of the proteins that causes blood to clot is missing, reduced or does not function adequately, which leads to a delay or disruption in blood clotting and results in prolonged bleeding.
Types of Hemophilia
The two most common types of hemophilia are Factor VIII and Factor IX Deficiency. Factor VIII Deficiency also is called classic hemophilia or hemophilia A. Factor IX Deficiency is often known as Christmas disease or hemophilia B. Hemophilia occurs in about one of every 5,000 males born in the United States. About 80 percent of persons with hemophilia have Factor VIII Deficiency. Blood tests are needed to tell the difference in types of hemophilia as the bleeding patterns, signs and symptoms are identical. However, the type of treatment to stop bleeding depends upon the type of hemophilia.
Causes of Hemophilia
The first two steps in clotting work normally for persons with hemophilia. However, persons with hemophilia do not have enough of one of the clotting factors needed to make fibrin strands. Without the fibrin strands, a firm clot does not form. Bleeding will only temporarily stop since the clot easily dissolves.
Severity and Symptoms
Persons with hemophilia do not bleed any faster than persons without a bleeding disorder. Generally external bleeding (cuts, scrapes) does not cause any problems. In children, bleeding is closely related to the stages of development and to physical activity. For babies and toddlers, the most common sites of bleeding are the mouth and head. Older children and adults often have bleeding into joints and muscles, especially the knees, ankles and elbows. While the most common bleeding in hemophilia is not life threatening, bleeding in a few places of the body is very dangerous. Examples of life-threatening bleeds are bleeds into the head, neck, spinal cord or stomach/intestines.
There is no cure for hemophilia at this time. The current treatment is to replace the missing clotting factor in the blood by injecting intravenously (into a vein) products containing concentrated amounts of the missing clotting factor. Clotting factor is now given "prophylactically" to prevent bleeding.
What is von Willebrand Disease?
von Willebrand Disease is the most common of all inherited bleeding disorders. It is caused by two problems: a deficiency in Factor VIII and von Willebrand factor, another clotting protein.
von Willebrand Factor is a glue-like "adhesive" protein that carries and protects Factor VIII in the bloodstream. It also helps platelets stick to the blood vessel walls at the injury site. When there is not enough von Willebrand factor or when von Willebrand factor does not work correctly, a person has von Willebrand Disease.
This disease is characterized by prolonged bleeding after surgery or trauma. In severe cases, the prolonged bleeding may occur without a known injury. Von Willebrand Disease is diagnosed with a detailed patient and family history and blood tests. These tests are sensitive to monthly hormonal changes, stress, medications and exercise; therefore, sometimes the tests must be repeated for accuracy.
Treatment of von Willebrand Disease
There are effective treatments for bleeding related to von Willebrand Disease. The type of treatment depends on the individual’s type and severity of von Willebrand disease and the specific bleeding problems. A variety of medications can be given to stop an active bleed or to prevent bleeding from happening during surgery or other invasive procedures. For more severe von Willebrand’s Disease, there are preparations of von Willebrand factor that are given intravenously. Milder forms of the disease often respond to DDAVP (desmopressin acetate) which can be given either intravenously or as a nose spray. Birth control pills are usually the best treatment of choice for bleeding related to heavy menstrual periods. An oral medication called aminocaproic acid is often used in conjunction with the above medications to help stop or prevent bleeding. This medication is especially helpful in controlling bleeding in the mouth, often associated with dental work.
Female Bleeding Disorders
The diagnosis of bleeding disorders in females is often met with surprise. Many people think that females do not have bleeding disorders. It is true that one type of inherited bleeding disorders called hemophilia mainly affects males. However, a number of other bleeding disorders affect both females and males. Moreover, some women who carry the gene for hemophilia may have bleeding symptoms even though they do not have the disease. Many of these bleeding disorders have only been identified in the past 30 to 40 years.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Females with bleeding disorders often have gynecological symptoms, in addition to easy bruising, nose bleeds, gum bleeds or bleeding with injury or surgery. About 1/5 of females with prolonged, excessive menstrual bleeding actually have an inherited bleeding disorder. Other women bleed between cycles or continuously through the month. Because the uterus is capable of losing a great deal of blood in a short period of time, females with these symptoms may have low iron levels. Additionally, prolonged bleeding after delivery of a child also may be a symptom of bleeding disorders in women.
Diagnosis of a bleeding disorder is sometimes delayed for females who do not have a family member with a known bleeding disorder. The use of birth control pills and other hormone therapies can affect the testing for some inherited bleeding disorders such as von Willebrand Disease. Additionally, some girls with bleeding disorders may ask other female family members about their symptoms. Since the disease is inherited and often unrecognized, family members may reassure the girl by telling them "it’s normal for our family to have very heavy periods." Unfortunately, undiagnosed bleeding problems may lead to surgical treatment such as a hysterectomy that may not be the best treatment of the bleeding problem.
Treatment and Care
Several types of bleeding disorders affect females, and the treatment depends on the exact type of disorder and the type of bleeding. The treatment may involve replacing the missing clotting protein, such as von Willebrand factor, by infusion of a blood product. In other cases, natural or synthetic hormone replacement and other oral medications may control the bleeding.
Acquired Bleeding Disorders
Acquired bleeding disorders are conditions that were not present at birth but lead to unusual or uncontrolled bleeding. Such disorders include Acquired von Willebrand Disease, Acquired platelet function disorders, and Acquired Coagulation Factor Inhibitors. These disorders usually are associated with another disease, such as cancer, systemic lupus erythematosus, diabetes, disorders of the vascular or connective tissue system, chronic renal failure, liver disease, and many others.