Lupus is a complicated disease that comes in several different forms. When it develops into systemic lupus, it can affect many different parts of the body, including the joints. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune condition, which means that it causes the immune system to begin attacking the body's own cells with the weapons that it normally uses to defeat infections. It is unclear exactly what triggers this autoimmune response, but it may be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. SLE is relatively rare in the UK, but it is most common in women of childbearing age.
The symptoms of lupus can vary in type and severity, and they can also change over time. It is common for people affected by SLE to experience periods of better health interspersed with flare-ups of the disease. Swelling and pain in the joints is one of the most common symptoms of SLE, but it can also occur because of other conditions, such as arthritis. If the joint problems are being caused by SLE, then other symptoms are likely to appear too. These generally include extreme fatigue and rashes, which usually appear on the face, hands or wrists.
A butterfly-shaped rash over the nose and cheeks is the most characteristic sign of SLE, but it doesn't appear in everybody who has this condition. Some people may also experience other kinds of symptoms, which can range from fevers, hair loss and swollen ankles to memory problems, depression and seizures.
If you are experiencing these kinds of symptoms, you should speak to your GP. Diagnosing lupus can be difficult as the symptoms vary so much between individuals and over time. Many of the symptoms could also be caused by other conditions, so your doctor might need to rule out some other possibilities before giving you a firm diagnosis. In addition to talking about your symptoms and conducting a physical examination, your doctor will also need to carry out a series of blood tests to check on your immune system.
If you do indeed have SLE, you will need to begin treatment, which is likely to involve a range of different medical professionals, including a rheumatologist if your joints have been affected.
SLE cannot be cured, but medications are available that can help to treat the symptoms. Several different types of drugs are available, including hydroxychloroquine to reduce fatigue and treat rashes, corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, and immunosuppressants to reduce the activity of the immune system in severe cases.
It is important to find the right treatment for each patient, particularly as these drugs need to be used carefully because they come with the risk of serious side effects.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can often be sufficient to manage the pain in milder cases, while working with an occupational therapist to make lifestyle changes can help with symptoms such as joint pain and swelling. It is also important for people who have been diagnosed with SLE to keep in close contact with their doctors so that their condition can be monitored in case of complications.