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Chronic Joint Pain and Inflammation? Could It Be Lupus?

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Occasional joint pain can be common and is often nothing to be concerned about, but what does it mean when the pain and inflammation become long-lasting and impacts your daily life? Read on to find out the symptoms of lupus and how it’s treated.

What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can affect any part of your body. The most common areas are the joints, skin, brain, lungs, kidneys and blood vessels. With autoimmune diseases, the body’s immune system cannot tell the difference between viruses, bacteria, and other germs and the body’s healthy cells, tissues, or organs. This causes the immune system to attack and destroy healthy cells, tissues, or organs.

How is lupus diagnosed?

Lupus can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms are often mistaken for other diseases or illnesses. Many people have lupus for an extended amount of time before an official diagnosis is made. If your doctor suspects you have lupus, you will likely be referred to a rheumatologist, a physician that specializes in the treatment of diseases that affect the muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. According to the Lupus Research Alliance, no single test can tell if a person has lupus. Your doctor can determine if you have lupus in other ways, including:

  • Medical history: It’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and other problems. Keep track of your symptoms by writing them down when they happen. Also, track how long they last.
  • Family history of lupus or other autoimmune diseases: Tell your doctor if lupus or other autoimmune diseases run in your family.
  • Complete physical exam: Your doctor will look for rashes and other signs that something is wrong.
  • Blood and urine tests: An antinuclear antibody test can show if your immune system is more likely to make the autoantibodies of lupus.
  • Skin or kidney biopsy: A biopsy is a minor surgery to remove a sample of tissue. The tissue is then viewed under a microscope. Skin and kidney tissue can show signs of an autoimmune disease.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

Lupus can affect almost any organ in your body. The symptoms of lupus also differ from person to person. For example, one person with lupus may have swollen knees and fever. Another person may be tired all the time or have kidney trouble. Over time, new symptoms can develop, or some symptoms may happen less often. Lupus symptoms also usually come and go, meaning that you don’t have them all the time. According to the Centers for Disease Control, symptoms can include:

  • Muscle and joint pain - You may experience pain and stiffness along with swelling. Common areas for muscle pain and swelling include the neck, thighs, shoulders and upper arms.
  • Fever - A fever higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit affects many people with lupus. The fever is often caused by inflammation or infection.
  • Rashes - You may get rashes on any part of your body that is exposed to the sun, such as your face, arms and hands. One common sign of lupus is a red, butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks.
  • Chest pain - Lupus can trigger inflammation in the lining of the lungs causing chest pain when breathing deeply.
  • Sun or light sensitivity - Most people with lupus are sensitive to light. Exposure to light can cause rashes, fever, fatigue, or joint pain.
  • Kidney problems - Half of people with lupus also have kidney problems. Symptoms include weight gain, swollen ankles, high blood pressure and decreased kidney function.
  • Prolonged or extreme fatigue - You may feel tired or exhausted even when you get enough sleep. Fatigue can also be a warning sign of a lupus flare-up.
  • Anemia - Fatigue could be a sign of anemia, a condition that happens when your body does not have red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.

There is no cure for lupus, but it can be managed. There are treatment options available that can help you feel better and improve symptoms. Your doctor may recommend trying over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen and naproxen to help reduce mild pain and swelling in joints and muscles.

Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, may also help reduce swelling, tenderness and pain. In high doses, they can calm the immune system. Antimalarial drugs are also used in people diagnosed with lupus. Medicines that prevent or treat malaria also treat joint pain, skin rashes, fatigue and lung inflammation. Studies have found that taking antimalarial medicine can stop lupus flare-ups and may help people with lupus live longer.

Immunosuppressive agents or chemotherapy drugs can be used in severe cases when lupus affects major organs and other treatments do not work. These medicines, however, can cause serious side effects because they lower the body’s ability to fight off infections.

Learn more about rheumatology at Ochsner. To learn more about Dr. Christopher Mesa, or to make an appointment, click here.

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