Lupus: A Multi-System Disease
Lupus is a chronic inflammatory condition resulting from dysfunction of the immune system . It is an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system attacks the body it's supposed to be protecting. Its cause is unknown but it is thought to have some genetic and environmental basis. Unlike some autoimmune diseases, lupus is a notorious for causing problems in multiple systems throughout the body, furthering complicating its treatment for the many people who suffer from it.
Many neurological problems can arise when lupus attacks the cells of the nervous system. People with lupus have reported experiencing migraines, memory loss, poor judgment, and poor concentration. Such neurological destruction can also cause things like dizziness, muscle weakness, or partial loss of temperature or pain sensation. Seizures have been noted in almost 20% of lupus cases while strokes are present in 15%.
Nearly half of those with lupus will experience kidney problems. The kidneys are responsible for filtering the blood of cellular waste and do so by passing blood through tiny, high pressure capillaries. Autoimmune diseases can easily damage these delicate capillaries, quickly impairing kidney function. Kidneys with decreased function can cause fluid retention, manifested as swollen ankles and feet. A urinalysis (urine test) revealing excess blood, white blood cells, or protein can be a sign of kidney dysfunction caused by lupus. In some instances, kidneys suffer so much damage that they completely stop functioning. This requires either kidney dialysis or kidney transplant.
Having lupus also increases the chances for developing lung problems. Because the lungs are so closely involved with the blood (since they oxygenate it), they are easily affected by the inflammation caused by lupus. Pleurisy, or inflammation of the sac encasing the lungs, is a common complication affecting nearly half of lupus patients. This condition causes painful breathing, chest pain, and coughing. A similar pain produced by lupus can be the result of chest muscle or rib joint inflammation.
Lupus can also cause inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart, called pericarditis. This can cause mild fever, fatigue, or severe and sudden chest pain. Those with lupus have an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which often leads to coronary heart disease. The valves of the heart can also be affected by lupus, leaving patients more susceptible to blood clots, heart failure, and endocarditis.
A condition called avascular necrosis is also more common in lupus patients. This affects primarily the bones when blood supply to bone tissue is diminished. This decrease in blood flow causes the death of osteocytes, or bone cells, which then creates tiny cracks in the remaining bone. These tiny cracks can weaken the bone so much that it finally breaks. This can be especially devastating in larger bones like the hip. While this long, and incomplete, list of complications makes the lupus prognosis sound pretty hopeless, recent advances in treatment have improved this outlook significantly. Read some of our other articles on lupus treatment to learn more about these promising advances.