Lupus and RA: Telling Two Diseases Apart

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  • What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

    What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

    Autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body, destroying healthy tissue. Scientists aren’t sure what triggers autoimmune diseases, but they may run in families.

    Women are at greater risk of having an autoimmune disease than men. African-American, Native-American, and Hispanic women have even greater risk, according to the National Institutes of Health.

    Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are both autoimmune diseases. In fact, the two diseases are often confused because they share many symptoms.

  • The Look-Alike Diseases

    The Look-Alike Diseases

    The most obvious similarity between RA and lupus is joint pain. Joint swelling is another common symptom, though with varying levels of inflammation. Both diseases also cause your joints to become hot and tender.

    Lupus and RA affect your energy levels, as well. If you have either disease, you might feel constant fatigue or weakness. A periodic fever is another symptom of both lupus and RA.

    Both diseases are more common in women than men.

  • How to Tell Them Apart

    How to Tell Them Apart

    There are many differences between lupus and RA. For instance, lupus might attack your joints, but it also affects your internal organs and your skin. Lupus can also cause life-threatening complications.

    RA, on the other hand, is not fatal. It attacks joints, primarily the fingers, wrists, knees, and ankles. RA can also cause joints to deform, while lupus doesn’t.

    RA’s pain is usually worse in the morning and gets better as the day progresses. But the joint pain caused by lupus is more constant throughout the day.

  • Why the Diseases Are Often Confused

    Why the Diseases Are Often Confused

    Because these two diseases share some common characteristics, many people are misdiagnosed with RA when they actually have lupus, or vice versa.

    Once RA is advanced, doctors can tell because the disease causes bone erosion and deformity. Lupus, however, does not affect the bones the same way.

    In the early stages of RA or lupus, doctors can usually make a diagnosis by looking at your symptoms. For example, lupus often affects the kidney, causes anemia, or leads to weight changes. A doctor might order a blood panel to check the health of your organs and to see if there’s something else that could be causing the symptoms.

  • Diagnosis Criteria

    Diagnosis Criteria

    Both lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are difficult to diagnose. This is especially true early on, when there are few symptoms. According to the Lupus Research Institute, common symptoms of lupus include a butterfly-shaped rash on the face, inflammation of the heart and lungs, and sensitivity to sunlight. Joint pain and swelling are common, but they are never the only symptoms.

    If you’re having joint problems but none of the other symptoms mentioned, you may have rheumatoid arthritis rather than lupus. Common signs of RA include joint stiffness and tenderness, as well as swollen or red joints.

  • Comorbidity


    Comorbidity refers to having more than one disease at the same time. Fortunately, comorbidity is rare. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, less than 30 percent of people who have lupus suffer from comorbidity, and only one percent of people who have lupus are also diagnosed with RA.

    However, other researchers believe the number is much larger. In a study published on The Journal of Rheumatology, researchers found that over 15 percent of people with RA have at least some symptoms of lupus, too.

  • Treatment Differences

    Treatment Differences

    There is no cure for lupus, so patients are treated depending on their symptoms. Many people with lupus take corticosteroids and other prescription drugs to treat joint inflammation and pain. Others might need medication to treat skin rashes, heart disease, or kidney problems. Sometimes a combination of several drugs works best.

    People with rheumatoid arthritis can get cortisone shots to control the pain. Sometimes, patients might need a knee or hip replacement later in life because the joint becomes too deformed.

  • What You Can Expect

    What You Can Expect

    People with both lupus and RA will need a long-term plan from their doctors. This plan will include ways to help control the pain and inflammation from RA. It will also help you minimize the complications of lupus.

    Long-term complications of lupus include heart and kidney damage. Lupus patients often suffer from abnormalities of the blood, including anemia and inflammation of the blood vessels. Without treatment, all of these could be fatal.