Lupus and the nervous system
Some people with lupus have problems with their nervous system. Lupus can cause problems in any part of the nervous system.
How does lupus affect the nervous system?
The nervous system has 3 parts:
- Central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord
- Peripheral nervous system — the nerves that make your muscles move and tell your brain what your body is feeling
- Autonomic nervous system — the system that controls internal processes like your breath, heartbeat, and blood flow
Lupus and the central nervous system
Lupus in the central nervous system (CNS) is sometimes called CNS lupus or Neuropsychiatric lupus. Symptoms include:
- Confusion and trouble concentrating (sometimes called lupus brain fog)
- Seizures (sudden, unusual movements or behavior)
- Stroke (blocked blood flow in the brain that causes brain cells to die)
Many people with lupus sometimes have confusion, memory loss, and trouble expressing thoughts. The medical term is cognitive dysfunction. These symptoms can come and go. Lupus brain fog can be frustrating, but you can learn to live with your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Talk with your doctor about ways to cope with lupus brain fog.
Watch this video to learn more about lupus fog.
CNS lupus can also cause some rare but serious problems, including:
- Psychosis (seeing and hearing things that do not exist, false beliefs)
- Myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord)
Some medicines and other health conditions can cause symptoms similar to CNS lupus. Your doctor can do tests to find out what’s causing your symptoms.
Lupus and the peripheral nervous system
Lupus can damage nerves in the body by causing inflammation of the nerves or the tissue around the nerves. This nerve damage is sometimes called peripheral neuropathy. The main symptoms are numbness, tingling, and being unable to move a part of your body.
Other symptoms include:
- Loss of vision
- Face pain
- Ringing in the ears or change in hearing
- Drooping face and eyelids
- Carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes pain, tingling, and numbness in the hand
Lupus and the autonomic nervous system
Lupus in the autonomic nervous system can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Changes in heart rate or blood pressure
- Stomach problems, like vomiting (throwing up) or diarrhea (watery poop)
Other nervous system problems
Many people with lupus have other nervous system problems, like headaches, depression, and anxiety. But doctors aren’t sure if these problems are caused by lupus. If you have any of these problems, talk with your doctor about possible causes and how to treat them.
Take steps to protect your nervous system
Lupus brain fog and other nervous system problems can make everyday life challenging. But you’re not alone — professionals called cognitive therapists can help you learn to cope with lupus brain fog.
You can also try these steps to help with lupus fog in your daily life:
- Focus on 1 task at a time
- When someone tells you their name or an important piece of information, try repeating it out loud and writing it down
- Keep a calendar to record appointments and reminders
Find out if lupus is affecting your nervous system
Nervous system problems might be symptoms of lupus, or they might be caused by a different condition. Different medical specialists (e.g. rheumatologist, neurologist, psychiatrist) and neuropsychologists can find out if your nervous system problems are related to lupus.
You may need to have tests, including:
- Lab tests, like blood tests
- Brain scans, like a CT or MRI of your head
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) to check the electrical activity in your brain
- Spinal tap to check the fluid in your spine
Find the right treatment plan
For many people with lupus, nervous system problems are reversible — and there are many different medicines that can treat them. Your doctor and other health care providers can help you find a treatment plan that works for you.
Remember that any medicine you take for lupus can have side effects. Talk with your doctors about what changes to watch for with the medicines you’re taking. And tell your treatment team right away if you have any side effects.
Watch this video for tips on managing side effects of lupus treatments.
Get help right away
Some nervous system problems, like strokes and seizures, are medical emergencies. Get help right away if you have any of these symptoms — especially if they come on quickly and you’ve never had them before:
- High fever
- Sudden numbness, weakness, or paralysis in the face, arm, or leg — usually on one side
- Sudden, new and severe headache
- Sudden severe stiff neck
- Sudden trouble seeing, speaking, or walking