Multiple sclerosis (MS) and systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) are both serious diseases that result from a failure of the body’s immune system to function properly.
In 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 a variety of symptoms, such as:
- weakness or numbness in the limbs
- vision problems
- bowel and bladder problems
There’s some debate among doctors about whether MS should be considered an autoimmune disease. Researchers haven’t yet found the MS antigen, or the substance that triggers the body’s immune response. Instead, MS is sometimes referred to as an “immune-mediated” condition, rather than an autoimmune disease.
Lupus is 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.
With lupus, your immune system attacks various parts of the body, such as:
- internal organs
MS and lupus have some distinct symptoms. People with MS may experience:
- difficulty walking
- vision loss
- slurred speech
Lupus, on the other hand, often causes skin rashes and fever.
MS and lupus do have several things in common, however. The arthritis that accompanies lupus can often be mistaken for joint and muscle stiffness and pain caused by MS. The two diseases can also leave you feeling very tired.
MS and lupus are also alike in that symptoms can come and go. Lupus patients may refer to having a “flare,” which means the symptoms are prominent. These symptoms can include:
- joint pain
- weight loss
- muscle aches
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. This 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.
Doctors usually determine that you have MS by eliminating other conditions, such as lupus. Both MS and lupus can be difficult to diagnose. It’s also possible to have overlapping diseases like 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 unlikely to have both MS and lupus, it’s common for someone with MS to be incorrectly diagnosed with lupus because these diseases share common symptoms. 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.
Neither lupus nor MS can be cured. A variety of medications can help control symptoms. If you have both conditions, some treatments and lifestyle changes can help treat them both:
- Get plenty of rest. Rest often helps shorten a flare, and can help you deal with weakness and fatigue symptoms.
- Engage in regular physical activity. This 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.
- Eat a healthy diet. A healthy diet is 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.
- Practice stress relief. 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. But the sooner you know what you’re dealing with, the faster you can start treating it.
Both MS and lupus present challenges with diagnosis and treatment. Being proactive about your health and engaging with your doctor when you experience symptoms can help you rise to that challenge.