Causes of antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) 

Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) is caused by the body's immune system producing abnormal antibodies called antiphospholipid antibodies.

This increases the risk of blood clots developing in the blood vessels, which can lead to serious health problems, such as:

It's not clear why these abnormal antibodies are produced, or why many people have antiphospholipid antibodies but don't develop blood clots.

A combination of genetic and environmental factors is thought to be responsible.

Antiphospholipid antibodies

Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system to help fight off infection and illness.

They're part of the body's defence system and produced to help protect against 'foreign invaders', such as bacteria and viruses. Antibodies signal the immune system to release chemicals to kill these bacteria and viruses and to prevent infection spreading.

In APS, the immune system produces abnormal antibodies which, rather than attacking bacteria and viruses, mistakenly attack proteins found on the outside of cells in the blood and blood vessels.

It's not known how this causes the blood to clot more easily. However, most experts believe that keeping your blood at the correct consistency (not too runny and not too sticky) is a delicate balancing act that relies on different types of proteins and fats working together. This balance may be disrupted by the abnormal antibodies in people with APS.

Genetic factors

Research into the genetics around APS is still at an early stage, but it seems the genes you inherit from your parents may play a role in the development of abnormal antiphospholipid antibodies.

APS isn't passed down directly from parents to children in the same way as other conditions, such as haemophilia and sickle cell anaemia. However, having a family member with antiphospholipid antibodies increases the chance of your immune system also producing them.

Studies have shown that some people with APS have a faulty gene that plays a role in other autoimmune conditions, such as lupus. This may explain why some people develop APS alongside another immune system condition.

Environmental factors

It's thought that one or more environmental triggers may be needed to trigger APS in some people.

Environmental factors that may be responsible include:

Another theory is that many people with abnormal antiphospholipid antibodies only go on to develop APS if they have a higher risk of developing blood clots. For example, if they:

However, this doesn't explain why some children and adults who don't have any of these risk factors still develop APS.

Page last reviewed: 09/11/2015

Next review due: 09/11/2017