A woman with lupus steps from floating opioid pill to pill while they crack underneath of her.

Opioid Use Among People Living with Lupus

Rheumatic diseases are a leading cause of ongoing, long-term pain1 involving inflammation, which includes swelling and tissue damage. Rheumatic diseases can occur in one or many systems of the body.2

Lupus can affect multiple parts of the body

Lupus is one example of a rheumatic disease that can cause pain on an ongoing basis. Also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), lupus is a disorder that happens when your immune system attacks your own organs and tissues. Your immune system normally detects and destroys foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. However, in lupus, the immune system turns on your body and attacks your own tissues.3

Lupus acts differently in different people, and it can affect multiple systems in your body. These include the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain, and blood cells. Depending on which systems of the body are affected, the symptoms of lupus vary from person-to-person.3

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that works in the brain to relieve pain. They may also induce feelings of relaxation and happiness. Opioids come as prescription medications, but they are very addictive, which means you need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. Stopping opioids can lead to withdrawal symptoms that make people sick and can even lead to death.4 Opioid abuse, which has become an epidemic in the US, has been linked to increasing numbers of overdose deaths.

Opioids don’t work well for lupus

Opioids are not recommended for people with lupus. They do not work well for the kind of pain from inflammation that people experience in lupus. Plus there is a higher danger of addiction when people take opioids for long periods of time. Additionally, using opioids over time can cause heart problems, reduce your immune system, and weaken your bones.1

Many doctors still prescribe opioids for lupus pain

Despite the research showing that opioids don’t work for lupus, a recent study showed a surprisingly high level of prescription opioid use for people with lupus. Nearly a full one-third of people in a group of people living with lupus being studied by researchers took prescription opioids to manage their pain. Of those, two-thirds had been taking opioids for more than a year.1

Opioids may be linked with worse health

In fact, some studies have shown that opioids lead to worse health for people with lupus. First, people with lupus have a higher risk of heart problems in the first place, plus they often need to take medicine to tamp down their immune system. Second, early data shows that lupus people on opioids die more frequently than those not on opioids. And third, people taking opioids are more likely to visit the emergency room than people not taking opioids.5

Better pain management for lupus

Based on the high levels of opioid use, the study authors recommended that doctors and people living with lupus think about finding better methods for managing the chronic pain that often comes with lupus. Examples of proven pain-management methods include physical activity as well as education for people living with lupus that gives them better understanding and tools to manage their disease.4

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