Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis: What's the Connection?
Lupus, also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease characterized by global (systemic) damage caused by the body's own immune system attacking it. The joints, liver, kidney, heart, and brain are worst affected by this disease, but the entire body pays a price.
Lupus is most easily recognized by the characteristic "butterfly rash" that spreads across the cheeks and nose. However, not everyone who has lupus exhibits this particular symptom. Joint pain and swelling, inflammation, fatigue, kidney problems, and photosensitivity (sensitivity to the sun) are other common symptoms .
We haven't determined why people get lupus, but the evidence indicates that a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental trigger interact to cause the disease. Women are nine times more likely to develop the disease than men. Most patients are between the ages of twenty and forty at the onset of the disease, although both children and the elderly can, on rare occasions, also get lupus. A diagnosis of lupus was once tantamount to a death sentence. However, advances in treatment methods have made it possible for many people with lupus to live relatively normal lives. With proper treatment, symptoms can usually be managed and the organs protected from severe damage.
Like lupus, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), is an autoimmune disease. However, in lupus, the damage is more general. MS is a condition which specifically targets the olygodendrocytes. The olygodendrocytes are cells found throughout the nervous system that make and maintain the myelin sheath. Myelin is a fatty layer found on the outside of neurons that acts as a kind of insulation, allowing them to function properly. MS causes this protective sheath to be stripped away. As a result, the symptoms of MS are all neurological, and differ depending on the location of the damage.
Common symptoms of MS include impaired coordination, loss of muscular control, fatigue, inflammation, headaches, problems with sensory input (the signals from the various sensory organs do not reach the brain), and various psychological and cognitive problems, including depression and memory loss. Like lupus, MS is more prevalent in young women. It appears to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental effects. It is chronic and, like lupus, includes periods of remission. During these periods, myelin is built up again, and symptoms subside. However, the continuous process of demylenation and remylenation causes scarring to build up, and gradually, symptoms become increasingly severe.
Lupus and MS are both autoimmune diseases. They both have an onset in early adulthood. Both affect women more often than men, although the ratio is not quite as steeply skewed in the case of MS. It is theorized that in both lupus and MS, genetic vulnerability is paired with environmental trauma to bring about the condition. They are both chronic conditions, requiring life-long treatment. Both are characterized by a pattern of sickness interspersed with remission. Lupus and MS have many symptoms in common. Both are characterized by extreme fatigue, inflammation, headaches, and muscle stiffness. Both can result in changes in thinking and feeling such as disordered thinking, poor memory, and depression.
How to Know Which You Have
Because of the many symptoms in common, many people with both lupus and MS are initially misdiagnosed. Seeing a specialist is crucial in finding the right diagnosis. For MS, an MRI can be used to find plaques in the brain and spinal cord. For lupus, an antinuclear antibody test (ANA) can often be a good diagnostic tool. Unfortunately, neither of these tests are conclusive, and an accurate symptom history is usually the best way to arrive at the correct diagnosis.
In both lupus and MS, the goal of treatment is to alleviate symptoms and try to limit organ damage. This is accomplished in different ways, however. With MS, interferons, immunosuppressants, and immunomodulators are most common. These drugs help regulate the activity of the immune system. When treating lupus, the most common medications are corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and antimalarials. They are all effective, to some degree, in managing the condition. Unfortunately, adverse side-effects are common and build-up over time. Starting a healthy diet has been shown to improve condition in lupus sufferers.