Lupus can affect both the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system. Lupus may attack the nervous system via antibodies that bind to nerve cells or the blood vessels that feed them, or by interrupting the blood flow to nerves.
The most common manifestation of neuro-lupus is cognitive dysfunction, which is characterized by clouded thinking, confusion, and impaired memory. Eighty percent of lupus patients who have had lupus for ten years or more will experience this condition. Single positron emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans of SLE patients with cognitive dysfunction show abnormalities in blood flow, indicating that the condition may be the result of decreased oxygen delivery to certain parts of the brain. Unfortunately, there is no real treatment for cognitive dysfunction. Normally, it does not get worse over time. However, some people find that counseling and other forms of cognitive therapy help them to cope with associated symptoms.
About 20% of patients with lupus have migraine-like headaches. These headaches are different from “lupus headaches,” which are due to active lupus and require a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) or blood vessel study (MRA or CT-angiogram) for diagnosis. A true lupus headache usually requires corticosteroids for treatment. Non-lupus migraine headaches should be treated with a migraine prevention diet. [A copy of this diet can be found in the article “Migraine Prevention Diet” under this heading.] However, when diet alone becomes insufficient, medications such as nortriptyline can be used to reduce headache frequency and severity.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain sensitization disorder characterized by widespread tenderness, general fatigue, and non-restful sleep. Doctors do not currently know the cause of fibromyalgia, but it is believed to result from a rewiring of pain pathways that lead to the spinal cord and brain. As a result, the central nervous system experiences an increased sensitivity to pain signals. Many people with lupus have fibromyalgia; in fact, much of the pain that people with lupus feel is due to this condition. To check for fibromyalgia, your doctor may touch several points on the muscles of your body. People with fibromyalgia often feel pain when light pressure is applied to these areas, whereas people without the condition feel little discomfort.
Three drugs are currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of fibromyalgia: pregabalin (Lyrica), duloxetine (Cymbalta), and milnacipran HCl (Savella). While these drugs can help to reduce discomfort by about 25%, there are many things that you can do on your own to help ease and manage the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Some people believe that limiting their daily activities helps to reduce pain and fatigue. In fact, doctors recommend that people with fibromyalgia continue to engage in regular daily activities. Scheduling short daily rest times may help you to keep a normal schedule. However, spending too many hours resting may make your symptoms worse.
In addition, since responses to stress can cause physical symptoms such as headache, increased pain, and muscle tension, try to practice stress management skills. There are some stressors that you can control, and there are some that are simply out of your hands. Focus on what you can control, and direct your energy toward future growth.
Try to practice a healthy lifestyle. Research has shown that light stretching activities such as Tai Chi and yoga can help to relax muscles and improve some of the pain associated with fibromyalgia. In addition, molecules called endorphins that are released by your brain after exercise—usually about 30 minutes of moderate or intense activity—help you to achieve a ‘natural high,’ and many people report that exercise simply makes them feel better overall. Other lifestyle elements, such as a supportive social network and a healthy diet, can also help to ease feelings of emotional and physical discomfort and promote an overall sense of well-being. If you feel you need more help in managing your fibromyalgia, your doctor can assist you in devising coping strategies.
Organic Brain Syndrome
Organic brain syndrome is a general term referring to physical disorders that cause impaired brain function. Other names are cerebritis, encephalopathy, and acute confusional state. This condition is usually diagnosed through lumbar puncture (spinal tap) or EEG (the recording of brain waves), and before the diagnosis is made, the doctor will likely rule out certain causes, such as drug use, infection, cancer, or metabolic problems. If the condition is confirmed to be caused by lupus, high dose steroids will be used to combat its effects.
CNS vasculitis is a very rare SLE complication caused by inflammation of the blood vessels of the brain. It is diagnosed by a blood vessel study (brain MRA or CT-angiogram) and requires treatment with high dose steroids.
- Wallace, Daniel J. “Heady Connections: The Nervous System and Behavioral Changes.” The Lupus Book: A Guide for Patients and Their Families. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 99-115.
- “How Lupus Affects the Body: Nervous System.” Lupus Foundation of America. 1 July 2009. <http://www.lupus.org/webmodules/webarticlesnet/templates/new_aboutaffects.aspx?articleid=102&zoneid=17>.