According to the Lupus Foundation of America, lupus affects approximately 1.5 million Americans and at least 5 million people worldwide. The vast majority of those with lupus experience joint or muscle pain at some point during the course of the illness. In fact, joint pain is the first symptom encountered by more th
an half of those with the condition. If you’re one of the many suffering from lupus pain, read on to discover six natural treatments that may help you find relief and increase your quality of life.
What Causes Lupus Pain?
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body’s immune system becomes overactive and begins to attack its own cells, tissues, and organs. Under normal circumstances, the immune system uses its natural inflammatory response to help isolate foreign substances—such as bacteria, viruses, or injuries—from further contact with the body’s tissues.
However, when the immune system goes awry and begins to turn against the body itself, inflammation can spread from system to system, leading to a number of negative consequences, including widespread pain.
Symptoms of Lupus Pain
People suffering from lupus may experience many different types of pain, especially during flare-ups of the disease. Furthermore, the most common type of lupus—systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)—is frequently accompanied by symptoms of chronic pain. In fact, a 2003 study demonstrated that 85% of people with SLE experience joint pain, and 32% to 66% report having headaches.
Other common symptoms and disorders seen with lupus include:
- Temporomandibular joint pain
- Raynaud’s phenomenon
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Lupus arthritis
- Chest pain
- Low back pain
Lupus Pain Medications
While pain management for lupus often involves the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids, these types of medications can have nasty side effects, including:
Thankfully, there are also several natural treatments available that may help reduce the inflammation and pain associated with lupus.
Natural Pain Relief for Lupus
According to a 2013 review of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments published in the journal Current Rheumatology Reports, supplements, mind-body interventions, and acupuncture have all demonstrated some efficacy in reducing the disease activity of lupus. So let’s take a closer look at some of these remedies.
Vitamins D and B6
Supplementing with vitamin D may be helpful in reducing the inflammation that leads to lupus pain. In fact, several studies have shown a relationship between vitamin D and disease activity in lupus, with high levels of vitamin D being associated with fewer lupus symptoms. Research also indicates that people with low levels of vitamin D are more likely to have lupus flares. Moreover, a recent study demonstrated that vitamin D supplementation is effective in improving levels of inflammatory markers.
Vitamin B6 supplementation has also been shown to have an effect on lupus, with a 2011 study demonstrating that higher intake was associated with a lower risk of active disease.
Multiple studies have shown that lupus patients who eat a diet rich in antioxidants like vitamins C and E and beta carotene have fewer flares than those who don’t. When you think about it, this only makes sense, as antioxidants are well known for their ability to fight inflammation.
One study found that vitamin C intake was inversely associated with the risk of active disease, and another demonstrated that antioxidants like beta carotene and vitamin E can protect against tissue damage.
Additional studies have also shown that levels of glutathione—the body’s so-called master antioxidant—are depleted in people with lupus. However, the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is a precursor of glutathione. And, in addition to its direct effects on levels of inflammation in the body, NAC has the ability to improve fatigue and limit the toxicity of the immunosuppressant medications commonly used to treat lupus.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Like antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids also have the ability to decrease levels of inflammation and help prevent flare-ups, both of which, as we’ve seen, can be of particular benefit to people with lupus.
A report from the American College of Rheumatology indicates that higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with decreased symptoms of both fibromyalgia and depression and better sleep quality.
A number of herbs display anti-inflammatory properties as well. For instance, white willow bark works in a manner similar to aspirin but has fewer side effects. And green tea has properties that protect against both inflammation and cartilage breakdown. In addition, an herb called Polygonum cuspidatum, or Japanese knotweed, contains the polyphenol resveratrol, which possesses significant anti-inflammatory (and antioxidant) qualities.
Another herb with strong anti-inflammatory characteristics is turmeric, which has features similar to NSAIDs, without the dangerous side effects. And Boswellia serrata, a plant more widely known as frankincense, has anti-inflammatory, antiarthritic, and analgesic properties. Moreover, a combination of turmeric and Boswellia has been shown to be safer and more effective than diclofenac in treating arthritis pain.
Like diet and nutrition, mind-body interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), have also been shown to be effective in helping people with lupus deal with pain and its psychological effects.
CBT works by addressing ongoing issues, finding more effective coping strategies, and developing new ways of processing feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. One study demonstrated that patients receiving CBT had significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress, all of which are common in people dealing with lupus pain.
Another intervention that’s been used to treat a variety of chronic pain conditions is biofeedback. This technique uses sensors to increase awareness of and change physiologic responses to unwanted symptoms.
Biofeedback helps individuals learn to regulate the central nervous system imbalance whereby stress and pain reinforce one another by making them aware of specific habits, such as muscle tension and shallow breathing. This awareness allows people to develop new, more adaptive patterns that break the pain-stress cycle.
Additional mind-body therapies, including progressive relaxation and meditation, may also be useful in coping with pain due to lupus.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a number of studies have shown that acupuncture may help ease symptoms of chronic pain, including low back and arthritis pain and headaches. And a small pilot study published in the journal Lupus found similar findings when investigating the effects of acupuncture on the pain associated specifically with lupus.
As you can see, a variety of natural options are available to people suffering lupus pain. However, it’s important to remember that lupus is a serious autoimmune disease that can sometimes lead to life-threatening complications. Therefore, you should speak with your health care provider about any natural treatments you’re considering and let them know if you experience any change in your symptoms.