Lupus is an inflammatory, autoimmune disease that can affect many of your organs, especially the heart. Abnormal heart rhythms, called arrhythmias, are among the potential cardiac complications of lupus.
Each person with lupus experiences the disease a little differently, with some body parts affected more severely than others. We’ll go over what to know if you’re experiencing arrhythmia symptoms and have lupus.
As a result, people with lupus experience increased levels of inflammation throughout the body. A person with lupus may experience symptoms all the time or have flare-ups that come and go.
It’s unclear why lupus develops in some people and not others, although having a parent or sibling with lupus increases your chances of having it too.
While there is currently no cure for lupus, there are a variety of medications to help fight inflammation and calm the body’s immune response. This can help control symptoms and reduce the frequency and duration of lupus flare-ups. A healthy lifestyle that includes avoiding flare-up triggers is also important.
Because lupus can lead to other health problems, treating arrhythmias or other lupus-related complications must be done carefully and in coordination with lupus treatment.
Lupus can affect all the major organs, and the heart is no exception. A 2021 report notes that heart rhythm disturbances are among the most significant cardiac complications of lupus, as well as other autoimmune rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
One reason for the lupus-arrhythmia connection may be related to the increase in systemic inflammation brought on by lupus. A 2020 study found that inflammation is a major driver of heart rhythm disorders, including atrial fibrillation.
Other heart-related lupus complications can include:
- endocarditis: inflammation of the lining and valves of the heart
- myocarditis: inflammation of the heart muscle
- pericarditis: inflammation of the thin, fluid-filled sac that surrounds the heart
Lupus can also contribute to high blood pressure and vasculitis (an inflammation of the blood vessels).
The types of arrhythmias
Some medications used to treat lupus may also be the cause of arrhythmias.
The main arrhythmia symptom is an abnormal heart rate. They may be faster, slower, or more chaotic than your usual heart rate. Other arrhythmia symptoms can include:
Some of these are also common lupus symptoms, including chest pain (particularly when taking a deep breath) and shortness of breath. Other typical lupus symptoms can include:
When to seek medical attention
An occasional and fleeting change in your heart rate is usually not a problem. However, there are signs that a heart condition may be gradually worsening or that a medical emergency may be developing.
You should make an appointment with a healthcare professional soon if you notice the frequency of episodes and the severity of your symptoms are starting to increase.
Because the combination of lupus and arrhythmia elevates your risk of heart disease and stroke, the following symptoms should be considered a medical emergency:
- chest pain
- pain, tingling, or numbness down one or both arms
- shortness of breath
- a sudden, cold sweat
- difficulty speaking properly and difficulty understanding others
- feeling of impending doom
- coughing up blood or blood-tinged mucus
- blood in stool (which may indicate internal bleeding)
In people with lupus, arrhythmias and most other heart conditions can be treated in much the same way they are in the general population. If you have a cardiologist and a specialist treating your lupus, such as a rheumatologist, they should consult each other before starting any medications or other arrhythmia treatments.
The primary treatments for arrhythmias include:
- antiarrhythmic drugs to help restore your heart to a healthy rhythm and prevent frequent arrhythmia episodes
- electrical cardioversion, in which a doctor gives your heart a shock to reset it to a healthy heartbeat
- implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a device that is implanted in the chest and sends small electrical shocks to the heart when an abnormal rhythm is detected
- cardiac ablation, in which a catheter is threaded up to the heart through a blood vessel starting in the upper leg or forearm and, and destroys the cells that may be causing the arrhythmia — either with heat, radio waves (radiofrequency ablation), or extremely cold temperature (cryoablation)
If you were on a medication for lupus that is causing an arrhythmia, your doctor may recommend switching.
Some combination of treatments, as well as a heart healthy lifestyle, may effectively manage this common complication of lupus.
Lupus is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that can cause a number of heart problems, including arrhythmia. While having an abnormal heart rhythm can be potentially serious, and even life threatening, there are several effective treatment options to help you thrive and enjoy a good quality of life.
By following the advice of your healthcare professionals, you may be able to live a normal life with lupus and arrhythmia. The key is to stay up to date with doctor’s appointments and report any changes you notice about your condition.