How Lupus And Rheumatoid Arthritis Are Related
Last updated: August 2021
Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have a lot in common. Both are autoimmune conditions in which a person’s immune system fights against its own body. They are also rheumatic disorders that affect the joints and connective tissues. Each disease affects about 1.5 million Americans. Because lupus and RA work in similar ways, they present many of the same symptoms and troubles.1,2
Lupus and RA share symptoms
Lupus and RA share a number of symptoms. Fatigue, inflammation, joint pain, and swelling are the most common ones. Low-level fever can also occur. Lupus and RA can affect other parts of the body as well, including the heart, lungs, and skin.2-4
As inflammation spreads throughout the body, the joints and nearby tissues often become red, sore, stiff, and warm. Injury can happen when any part stays inflamed for a long time. This in turn can impede normal functioning.2-4
Lupus and RA diagnosis
The shared and complex symptoms of lupus and RA make both diseases hard to diagnose. While many of the symptoms of lupus and RA are alike, which ones occur can vary from person to person. Not all people have the more distinct symptoms like lumps under the skin, rashes, and ulcers.2-4
When symptoms appear also varies. Symptoms can come little by little and not all at the same time. Symptoms may go away and come back days, months, or years later.2-4
Symptoms can also change as lupus and RA progress. Pain may first present in the joints of the hands and feet. Later, pain may show up in the hip and knee joints and/or in muscles in the back, neck, and legs.3,4
Many people with lupus and RA go for years without a clear, correct diagnosis. A survey in 2014 showed that 63 percent of 827 people with lupus had been told they had something else.5 In a 2015 study of almost 5,000 people, 39 percent thought they had RA. Half of those really had osteoarthritis, and 5 percent had lupus.6
To further obscure the matter, people can have both lupus and RA.7 Some may see more than a few doctors before they find out exactly what their diagnosis is. While the search can frustrate people, it helps to narrow down the problem.
Lupus and RA tests
A rheumatologist often makes or confirms a finding of lupus or RA. These doctors are experts in rheumatic diseases. They know which questions to ask about symptoms and what signs to look for in a physical exam. They conduct a thorough review of a person’s health history, which can shed light on issues with the immune system.4,8
Blood tests also help detect lupus and RA. Some tests measure inflammation, while other tests spot antibodies or proteins the body makes in response to what it deems harmful. Antinuclear antibodies (ANA) tend to exist with lupus, while rheumatoid factor (RF) and cyclic citrullinated peptide (CCP) emerge with RA. Biopsies, x-rays, and other imaging tests can reveal damage to bones, joints, and organs.4,8
Whether a person has lupus or RA may not be clear early on, so routine healthcare is important. This allows doctors to monitor symptoms and check for changes. The diagnosis may become more definite over time.4,8
Lupus and RA treatments
Given the related causes (genetics, hormones, toxins, and others), courses, and symptoms, some of the same treatments work for both lupus and RA. Standard treatments consist of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and steroids to reduce inflammation and pain. Doctors may prescribe drugs to suppress the immune system and keep the diseases from advancing.2,4
But these treatments are not the perfect answer. They do not work the same for all people. Side effects range from minor to severe. These treatments can lead to other problems and do little to help restore the immune system.2,4
Doctors who look at how the body functions in tandem with the emotions, mind, and spirit may suggest other treatments. These include measures to reduce stress, including exercise and rest. They may highlight the role of nutrition and how certain foods and supplements can lower or raise inflammation in the body.4
If you have any of the symptoms noted above, you could have lupus and/or RA. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Ask to see an expert in rheumatic diseases who can help you find out and take care of what ails you.
How are you most likely to respond when someone offers you unsolicited advice about your lupus?