The cause of lupus remains unknown, but there is solid evidence that genetics, epigenetics (changes in chromosomes that affect gene activity), environmental factors, viruses and infections play a role. Further study of these variables is expected to improve our understanding of causes, which should lead to improved diagnosis, prognosis, prevention, and treatment.
While no single test can determine whether a person has lupus, several laboratory tests may help the doctor confirm a diagnosis, or at least rule out other ailments. The most useful tests identify certain autoantibodies that are often present in the blood of lupus patients. A biopsy of the skin or kidneys may also be ordered if those organs are affected. The doctor will look at the entire picture – medical history, symptoms, and test results – to determine if you have lupus. Other laboratory tests are used to monitor the progress of the disease once it has been diagnosed.
Vasculitis, antiphospholipid antibodies, and renal failure are commonly found in patients with lupus; these conditions greatly increase the risk of developing pulmonary emboli. The diagnosis in a patient with shortness of breath, hemoptysis, and pleuritic chest pain is commonly made with ventilation-perfusion scans or computed tomography (CT) angiography. The CT angiogram demonstrates a filling defect in the left anterior segmental artery (arrow).
Blood clots are more common in people with lupus. Clots often occur in the legs (called deep venous thrombosis or DVT) and lungs (called pulmonary embolus or PE) and occasionally in the brain (stroke). Blood clots that develop in lupus patients may be associated with the production of antiphospholipid (APL) antibodies. These antibodies are abnormal proteins that may increase the tendency of the blood to clot. Blood can be tested for these antibodies.
Lupus is treated by internal medicine subspecialists called rheumatologists. Depending on whether or not specific organs are targeted, other health specialists who can be involved in the care of patients with lupus include dermatologists, nephrologists, hematologists, cardiologists, pulmonologists, and neurologists. It's not uncommon that a team of such physicians is coordinated by the treating rheumatologist together with the primary care doctor.
A clinical trial is a prospective biomedical or behavioral research study of human subjects that is designed to answer specific questions about biomedical or behavioral interventions (drugs, treatments, devices, or new ways of using known drugs, treatments, or devices). Clinical trials are used to determine whether new biomedical or behavioral interventions are safe, efficacious, and effective.
To ensure that the person has lupus and not another autoimmune disease, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) established a list of clinical and immunologic criteria that, in any combination, point to SLE. The criteria include symptoms that the person can identify (e.g. pain) and things that a physician can detect in a physical examination and through laboratory test results. The list was originally compiled in 1971, initially revised in 1982, and further revised and improved in 2009.
Acute cutaneous LE typically presents in the third decade of life and is frequently associated with active SLE. There are localized and generalized forms of ACLE. The localized form is the frequently described malar, or “butterfly” rash, which refers to erythema that occurs over both cheeks, extends over the nasal bridge, and spares the nasolabial folds. These lesions are classically transient, sun-induced, and non-scarring, although dyspigmentation can occur. Patients may initially mistake this rash for a sunburn, and only seek medical attention when it persists for several days. A fine surface scale and/or edema may be associated with the erythema. Malar rashes have been reported to be present in up to 52% of SLE patients at the time of diagnosis, with clinical activity of the rash paralleling that of the systemic disease. This rash can be confused with acne rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis, however the former is associated with the formation of papules and pustules, and the latter occurs within the nasolabial folds.
Corticosteroids and immune suppressants: Patients with serious or life-threatening problems such as kidney inflammation, lung or heart involvement, and central nervous system symptoms need more “aggressive” (stronger) treatment. This may include high-dose corticosteroids such as prednisone (Deltasone and others) and drugs that suppress the immune system. Immune suppressants include azathioprine (Imuran), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), and cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune). Recently mycophenolate mofetil has been used to treat severe kidney disease in lupus – referred to as lupus nephritis.
For resistant skin disease, other antimalarial drugs, such as chloroquine (Aralen) or quinacrine, are considered and can be used in combination with hydroxychloroquine. Alternative medications for skin disease include dapsone and retinoic acid (Retin-A). Retin-A is often effective for an uncommon wart-like form of lupus skin disease. For more severe skin disease, immunosuppressive medications are considered as described below.
A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids may help to mitigate inflammation. Although omega-3s have not been adequately studied in lupus, studies of the general population suggest that these essential fatty acids may also boost mood and improve cardiovascular health. Fish, nuts, and flax are excellent sources of omega-3s and can be easily incorporated into everyday meals. Try to avoid saturated fats, such as those in beef and fried snack foods, since these fats are known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and may actually stimulate the immune system.
When lupus starts affecting other organs of the body, doctors often prescribe drugs that suppress the immune system, says Kramer. (Lupus causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack itself. Immunosuppressive medications help stop that from happening.) One such example, is Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), originally an anticancer drug. It suppresses the immune system and may be used to reduce inflammation of the kidney, or nephritis, says Dr. Kaplan.
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