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How Lupus Can Impact the Nervous System

How lupus can affect the nervous system and symptoms to watch for.

How Lupus Can Impact the Nervous System

Many people experience the occasional tingling, numbness, or pins-and-needles feeling in their limbs. The medical term for this is paresthesia and it can have numerous causes. A common cause is compression of nerves or blood vessels that result from putting pressure on the limb—often referred to as a limb “falling asleep.”

Sometimes though, these sensations can be the result of a more serious problem.

Lupus is an autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells and tissue. While there are several types of lupus, the most common type is systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE. This type is what most people are referring to when they use the term “lupus.”

SLE can affect many different areas of the body, including the joints, skin, blood vessels, and organs like the kidneys, heart, and lungs. SLE can also impact the nervous system.

Lupus and the nervous system
The nervous system can be divided into three main parts—the central nervous system (CNS), the peripheral nervous system (PNS), and the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

  • The central nervous system refers to the brain and spinal cord.
  • The peripheral nervous system refers to the nerves outside the CNS that run through the rest of the body.
  • The autonomic nervous system controls communication between the brain and internal organs, and controls things like breathing and heart rate.

Lupus can affect all three components of the nervous system in several ways:

  • When a person has lupus, the immune system creates antibodies that attack healthy cells and tissues. In some cases, these antibodies can directly attack nerve cells.
  • Lupus antibodies can also attack blood vessels. This can impair blood flow to the spinal cord, brain, and nerves, which can damage nerve cells and disrupt how they function.
  • Inflammation and swelling from surrounding tissue can compress nerves and result in damage to nerves.
  • Some medications that are used to treat lupus can also cause side effects that affect the central nervous system.

Depending on what parts of the nervous system that are affected, a person may experience a variety of symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • Cloudy thinking, confusion, and difficulty concentrating
  • Migraine-like headaches
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Depression
  • Mood disturbances
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Widespread pain
  • Issues with sleep
  • Facial pain
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Vision problems
  • Burning sensation, numbness, tingling
  • Weakness
  • Inability to sense heat or cold
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms

Treatment
Treatment for lupus is typically overseen by a rheumatologist, who can prescribe medications and lifestyle strategies to help control disease activity, ease symptoms, avoid flares, and prevent complications. A person with lupus may also work with different healthcare specialists to address specific issues that are a result of having lupus.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above, talk to your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can refer you to a neurologist, a doctor that specializes in disorders of the nervous system. A neurologist can order tests and exams that can help determine if and how lupus is causing the neurological symptoms and recommend an appropriate treatment.

Treatment for neurological symptoms often involves medications to help control disease activity and reduce inflammation.

Medically reviewed in January 2021.

Sources:
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Paresthesia Information Page."
Medical News Today. "Why do my arms go numb at night?"
Medical News Today. "What can cause numbness in hands while sleeping?"
American Academy of Family Physicians. "Patient Education: Lupus."
Lela A. Lee and Victoria P. Werth. "Lupus Erythematosu." Dermatology. Fourth Edition, 2018.
Johns Hopkins Lupus Center. "Nervous System."
Lupus Foundation of America. "How lupus affects the nervous system."
Johns Hopkins Lupus Center. "How Lupus Affects the Body."
Lupus Canada. "The Nervous System and Lupus."
Sarah McGlasson, Stewart Wiseman, et al. "Neurological Disease in Lupus: Toward a Personalized Medicine Approach." Frontiers in Immunology, 2018. Vol. 9.
Lupus Foundation of America. "Doctors who treat lupus."

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