Systemic lupus erythematosus
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common form of lupus. Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy organs and tissue. Lupus can affect any part of the body, causing inflammation and damage in joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, or the brain.
More than 90% of people with lupus have skin rashes, often triggered by exposure to the sun. About half have kidney and lung problems. Because lupus affects the joints, it is considered a rheumatic (arthritis) disease.
Signs and Symptoms
Lupus is often accompanied by the following signs and symptoms:
- Extreme fatigue
- Painful or swollen joints (arthritis)
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- Unexplained fever
- Skin rashes, including a characteristic "butterfly" rash over the nose and cheeks
- Kidney problems
- Hair loss
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain
- Mouth and nose ulcers
- Headaches, migraine, seizures, stroke
- Photosensitivity (sensitivity to sunlight)
What Causes It?
Scientists don’t know what causes lupus, although genetics and environment probably play a part. Lupus usually first affects people 15 - 45 years old, but it can also happen in childhood or later in life. Lupus is a long-lasting disease, and symptoms tend to come and go.
Because more women than men have lupus, some researchers think hormones play a part in the disease. And some researchers believe lupus may develop after a person is infected with an organism that looks like particular proteins in the body. In this theory, the body later mistakes the proteins for the organism and attacks them. Lupus also seems to have a genetic component -- it can run in families.
Who's Most At Risk?
The following people are at higher risk for lupus:
- Many more women than men have lupus.
- Lupus is more common in black women and women of Hispanic, Asian, and Native American descent than in white women.
- Lupus can run in families, but the likelihood that a child or a brother or sister of a person also will have lupus is quite low.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your doctor will refer you to a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in treating joint diseases. The rheumatologist can diagnose and treat lupus, and a team of specialists usually helps determine which treatment may work best for you. Lupus can be hard to identify, and it may take time to make the diagnosis. Its symptoms can look like other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Your doctor will examine you and may order tests, including:
- Complete blood count
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) -- an elevated ESR means there is inflammation in the body
- Blood tests to check your kidney and liver function
- Complement test, a blood test that measures severity of infection
- Antinuclear antibody test (ANA) -- positive in most lupus patients
- Other antibody tests
- Syphilis test (may be falsely positive in people with lupus)
- Skin or kidney biopsy
While you can’t prevent lupus, you can help prevent flare-ups:
- Avoid sun exposure, high-dose birth control pills, penicillin, and sulfonamides (antibacterial agents)
- Exercise regularly
- Get flu and pneumonia vaccines
There is no known cure for lupus. However, your team of health care providers can develop a treatment plan to prevent flare-ups, to treat them when they do occur, and to minimize complications.
Your health care provider may prescribe the following medications:
- Corticosteroids (such as prednisone), to quickly bring down inflammation. Side effects from long-term use include increased risk of osteoporosis.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), to control pain, swelling, and fever. These drugs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve). Ask your doctor before taking any of these drugs over the counter.
- Drugs that suppress the immune system, to help keep the disease under control and prevent flares, for severe cases of lupus. These drugs include belimumab (Benlysta), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), and azathioprine (Imuran), mycophenolate (CellCept), and methotrexate.
- Antimalarial drugs, to treat fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, and inflammation of the lungs. One of these drugs, hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), also helps prevent flares.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
A comprehensive treatment plan for lupus may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies.
Nutrition and Supplements
Eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is important for anyone with a chronic disease. You may also want to try these tips:
- Eat more antioxidant-rich foods (such as green, leafy vegetables) and fruits (such as blueberries, pomegranates, and cherries).
- Avoid refined foods, such as white breads, pastas, and sugar.
- Eat fewer red meats and more lean meats, cold-water fish, or beans for protein.
- Use healthy cooking oils, such as olive oil or vegetable oil.
- Avoid coffee and other stimulants, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Exercise moderately at least 30 minutes daily, 5 days a week.
The following supplements may also help:
- Flaxseed contains omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-linolenic acid, which may help lower inflammation. One preliminary study suggested that people with lupus who took flaxseed had better kidney function. That's important because kidney disease (lupus nephritis) is a major complication of lupus.
- Fish oil, which also contains omega-3 fatty acids, may help decrease inflammation. Evidence is mixed about taking a fish oil supplement. But doctors do suggest that people with lupus eat more fish. Cold-water fish, such as salmon or halibut, are good sources. Talk to your doctor before taking a fish oil supplement if you also take anticoagulants (blood-thinners), such as warfarin (Coumadin). Eating fish doesn't cause the same risk.
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Do not take DHEA without your doctor's supervision. DHEA is made into the hormones estrogen and testosterone in the body. Several clinical trials show that it may help improve symptoms of lupus. However, side effects -- including acne, increased facial hair, and excessive sweating -- were common. DHEA may also lower HDL (good) cholesterol, which could contribute to heart disease. Because DHEA acts like a hormone, people with a history or higher risk of breast, uterine, ovarian, or prostate cancer should not take it.
- Calcium and vitamin D supplement, if taking corticosteroids. Corticosteroids can raise the risk of osteoporosis, and calcium and vitamin D can help keep bones strong.
- Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) may help prevent joint and connective tissue breakdown.
Herbs are generally available as standardized, dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures/liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 - 2 heaping teaspoonfuls per cup of water steeped for 10 - 15 minutes (roots need longer).
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) seemed to reduce overactive immune systems in people with lupus in one study. However, the study was preliminary. More research is needed to know whether astragalus works -- especially because astragalus is usually thought to stimulate the immune system. Do not take astragalus without talking to your doctor first, especially if you already take medications to suppress your immune system.
Tripterygium wilfordii, a Chinese herb. You may also make teas from the root of this herb. Two preliminary studies suggest that this herb may help suppress the immune system and reduce joint pain and inflammation. However, not much is known about its safety, and one report suggests that taking it for a long time may reduce bone density in women. Having low bone density raises your risk of osteoporosis. There are other reports of possibly more serious side effects. Do not take this herb without your doctor's supervision. Do not take tripterygium if you are pregnant.
People with lupus should not take alfalfa supplements, and they should talk to their doctor before taking any herb that is used to strengthen the immune system, such as echinacea or gingko.
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for lupus based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
- Apis mellifica
- Arsenicum album
- Calcarea carbonica
- Rhus toxicodendron
- Ruta graveolens
- Thuja occidentalis
Acute dose is 3 - 5 pellets of 12X to 30C every 1 - 4 hours until symptoms are relieved.
The prognosis for people with lupus is mixed. Half of people who go into remission stay in remission for decades, but 90% of people with lupus have complications. For women, symptoms tend to get better after menopause. Ninety percent of people with lupus have a survival rate of 10 years, and 63 - 75% have a survival rate of 20 years. People with certain complications from lupus tend to have a poor prognosis.
Your doctor should monitor you closely during a flare to make sure you get the right treatment, and should watch your condition long-term to spot any complications with your lungs, kidneys, or other organs.
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- Last reviewed on 7/3/2012
- Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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