Most people with lupus experience joint pain, usually in smaller joints like fingers and toes. Some lupus medications may already help with joint pain, but a doctor may recommend other medications, exercise, or dietary changes.
When you think of joint pain, the first connection is often arthritis. But lupus, an autoimmune condition, also commonly affects the joints. In fact, almost
If you received a diagnosis of lupus and are curious about why you’re experiencing joint pain, read on to learn the causes, symptoms, and potential treatment options.
Like other autoimmune diseases, lupus can cause your body to mistakenly attack healthy cells and tissues. Through a complex chain of events, lupus activates antibodies as if you were mounting an immune response to a disease. This can affect your joints, skin, blood vessels, and internal organs.
As part of this chain of events, your body releases proteins called cytokines, which help activate your immune system. The cytokines released in 50% to 75% of people with lupus are the same that your body releases in response to a virus. Many people with lupus describe their achy joints as similar to joint pain that co-occurs with a viral infection.
Joint pain in lupus usually appears in one of three ways:
Lupus may cause a small amount of inflammation in or around your joints. But this isn’t like the inflammation in RA.
Joint pain in lupus typically does not lead to a loss of cartilage or any structural changes in your joints. You may not even experience hallmark symptoms of inflammation, like swelling or erythema (skin color changes).
About 3% to 13% of people with lupus develop JA.
Some people with lupus experience joint pain that looks similar to RA, but this happens rarely. These cases may lead to structural changes.
While there’s no clear definition of “rhupus,” studies estimate it affects 0.1% to 9.7% of people with lupus.
Joint pain is a common symptom of lupus. You may notice that the affected joints are:
- stiff and difficult to move, especially after resting and when you wake up in the morning
- painful when you try to move them
- tender and swollen
- red or discolored along the affected skin or warm to the touch
You may also find that your joint symptoms are symmetrical, meaning they affect both sides of your body. Examples include both knees or fingers on both hands.
Other common lupus symptoms include:
While lupus may impact any joint in the body, it tends to develop in your smaller joints away from your torso first. These include your:
- costochondral joints (in chest)
Treating the underlying inflammation that causes lupus joint pain can help decrease your symptoms over time. A doctor may recommend:
- Antimalarial drugs: Some experts have found that medications that treat malaria may help some people manage joint pain, fatigue, and other lupus symptoms.
- Biologics: Anifrolumab (Saphnelo) and belimumab (Benlysta) are biologics that treat lupus by suppressing the types of autoantibodies that contribute to inflammation.
- Corticosteroids: Taken by pill or via injection, these steroids can help reduce inflammation when you take them for a short period.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These medications decrease inflammation while changing the way lupus affects your body. DMARDs may be especially helpful in preventing further joint damage.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Doctors commonly prescribe NSAIDs with DMARDs to help decrease joint inflammation and reduce pain.
You may want to consider talking with a doctor about starting an exercise program. Exercise is important if you have a joint disease. It can help strengthen the muscles that surround your joints and help reduce pain and stiffness.
In some cases, a doctor may refer you to a physical therapist who can guide you through specific exercises that target weak muscles and painful joints.
While there’s no lupus-specific diet,
As with other autoimmune diseases, there’s currently no cure for lupus. Instead, you can expect your joint pain to improve with treatments that can manage the underlying inflammation. Some of these treatments, such as DMARDs, may also help protect your joints from damage.
Like other autoimmune conditions, lupus can cause symptoms that fluctuate over time. This means that any associated joint pain may come and go, with periods of flare-ups and remission.
Many people with lupus experience musculoskeletal symptoms like joint pain. Like other lupus symptoms, joint pain is due to your body attacking healthy tissues, which often includes inflammation.
There’s currently no cure for lupus, but you can manage flare-ups with medical treatments. Some of these medications, such as NSAIDs, can also directly help target joint pain.
Talk with a doctor if you have lupus and are experiencing joint pain, swelling, or stiffness. The sooner you can manage lupus, the quicker you may be able to find relief from joint pain and boost your mobility.