Multiple sclerosis (MS) and systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) are both serious diseases that affect the body’s immune system. In the case of MS, the body’s immune system damages myelin, the protective layer around your nerves. This interferes with communication from your brain to the rest of your body. The result is weakness or numbness in the limbs, vision problems, and other symptoms. With lupus, your immune system attacks various parts of the body, such as the skin, joints, and even internal organs.
Lupus is also considered an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system reacts against healthy antigens. These are proteins that trigger the body’s immune response. It’s as if the immune system can’t tell the difference between antigens that are supposed to be in your body and infections or other foreign “invaders” that the immune system is supposed to attack. There is some debate among doctors about whether MS should be considered an autoimmune disease, since research hasn’t found the MS antigen. Instead, MS is sometimes referred to as an “immune-mediated” condition, rather than an autoimmune disease.
Unfortunately, it’s possible to have MS and lupus or lupus and another autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis. These diseases also tend to “cluster” in families, meaning you may have one autoimmune disease, while a sibling or parent has a different type.
While it’s uncommon to have both MS and lupus, it is common for someone with MS to be incorrectly diagnosed with lupus. Aside from lupus, MS actually has several other “mimic” conditions, including Lyme disease. Part of the confusion is that there is no single diagnostic test for MS. Doctors usually determine that you have MS by eliminating other conditions, such as lupus.
MS and lupus have some distinct symptoms. People with MS may experience difficulty walking because the disease has affected their coordination or the strength of their legs. Vision loss and slurred speech can also occur with MS. Lupus, on the other hand, frequently presents with skin rashes and fever.
But MS and lupus do have several things in common. The arthritis that accompanies lupus can often be mistaken for joint pain caused by MS. The two diseases can also leave you feeling very tired.
Lupus and MS are also alike in that symptoms can come and go. Lupus patients may refer to having a “flare,” which means the onset of new symptoms. The symptoms can include joint pain, a rash, weight loss, anemia, muscle aches, and fatigue. Sometimes the symptoms are like those you’ve had in the past, while other flares can bring on new symptoms.
Many people with MS also have “relapsing-remitting” symptoms, which means signs of the disease can develop over a period of weeks and then gradually disappear. The remission period can last a couple of months or a couple of years. However, as the disease progresses, many symptoms tend to get worse without going into remission. The most obvious signs of worsening MS are walking problems.
Neither lupus nor MS has a cure. A variety of medications can help control symptoms. If you happen to have both conditions, some treatments and lifestyle changes can help treat them both.
For example, if you have MS and lupus, you’ll be advised get plenty of rest. Exercise is also recommended. Regular physical activity can sometimes help you get through a lupus flare faster, and can help improve your strength and coordination if you’re dealing with the symptoms of MS. A healthy diet is, of course, recommended for everyone. But people with lupus may have certain dietary restrictions. MS patients may also be advised to get more vitamin D in their diet.
Stress relief is also strongly recommended. Taking a class in meditation or learning relaxation breathing techniques will help you cope with having a chronic disease. Learning to de-stress can be even more important for lupus patients, because stress can trigger flares.
How lupus and MS will progress in an individual is difficult to predict. You may have mild lupus your whole life or it may progress to be quite serious. MS symptoms can also get severe over time, but the disease itself usually doesn’t affect your life expectancy.
If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, or you feel that something “just isn’t right,” don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor. It may take some time and a variety of tests to determine what’s wrong. However, the sooner you know what you’re dealing with, the faster you can start treating it. Having MS and lupus is certainly a challenge, but being proactive about your health can help you rise to that challenge.