Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) can cause systemic complications throughout the body.
Almost 85% of patients with SLE experience problems associated with abnormalities in the blood.
Anemia. About half of patients with SLE are anemic. Causes include:
Hemolytic anemia can occur with very high levels of the anticardiolipin antibody. It can be chronic or develop suddenly and be severely (acute).
Antiphospholipid Syndrome. Between 34 - 42% of patients with SLE have antiphospholipid syndrome (APS). This is a specific set of conditions related to the presence of autoantibodies called lupus anticoagulant and anticardiolipin. These autoantibodies react against fatty molecules called phospholipids, and so are called antiphospholipids. Their actions have complex effects that include causing narrowing and abnormalities of blood vessels.
Not all patients with APS carry both of the autoantibodies, and they can also wax and wane and so have varying effects. APS also occurs without lupus in about half of patients with the syndrome.
Thrombocytopenia. In thrombocytopenia, antibodies attack and destroy blood platelets. In such cases, blood clotting is impaired, which causes bruising and bleeding from the skin, nose, gums, or intestines. (This condition can also occur in APS, but it is not considered to be one of the standard features of the syndrome.)
Neutropenia. Neutropenia is a drop in the number of white blood cells. Patients with SLE often neutropenia, but the condition is usually harmless unless the reductions are so severe that they leave the patient vulnerable to infections.
Acute Lupus Hemophagocyte Syndrome. A rare blood complication of SLE that occurs primarily in Asians is called acute lupus hemophagocytic syndrome. It is generally of short duration and characterized by fever and a sudden drop in blood cells and platelets.
Lymphomas. Patients with SLE and other autoimmune disorders have a greater risk for developing lymph system cancers such as Hodgkinâ ' s disease and non-Hodgkinâ ' s lymphoma (NHL).
Heart disease is a primary cause of death in lupus patients. The immune response in SLE can cause chronic inflammation and other damaging effects that can cause significant injury to the arteries and tissues associated with the circulation and the heart. In addition, SLE treatments (particularly corticosteroids) affect cholesterol, weight, and other factors that can also affect the heart.
Patients with SLE, have a higher risk for developing the following conditions, which put them at risk for heart attack or stroke:
The risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke is much higher than average in younger women with SLE. The risks decline as such women age.
SLE affects the lungs in about 60% of patients:
The kidneys are a crucial battleground in SLE because it is here that the debris left over from the immune attacks is most likely to be deposited. Also, the immune response can also attack different parts of the kidney causing damage. About 50% of patients with SLE exhibit inflammation of the kidneys (called lupus nephritis).This condition occurs in different forms and can vary from mild to severe. Poor kidney function and kidney failure may result from this damage.
Serious complications occur eventually in about 30% of patients. If kidney injury develops, it almost always occurs within 10 years of the onset of SLE, rarely after that.
Nearly all patients with SLE report some symptoms relating to problems that occur in the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the spinal cord and the brain. CNS involvement is more likely to occur in the first year, usually during flare-ups in other organs.
Symptoms vary widely and overlap with psychiatric or neurologic disorders. They may also be caused by of some medications used for SLE. Central nervous system symptoms are usually mild, but there is little effective treatment available for them. CNS symptoms get worse as the disease progresses.
The most serious CNS disorder is inflammation of the blood vessels in the brain (vasculitis), which occurs in 10% of patients with SLE. Fever, seizures, psychosis, and even coma can occur. Other CNS side effects include:
Infections are a common complication and a major cause of death in all stages of SLE. The immune system is indeed overactive in SLE, but it is also abnormal and reduces the ability to fight infections. Patients are not only prone to the ordinary streptococcal and staphylococcal infections, but they are also susceptible to fungal and parasitic infections (called opportunistic infections), which are common in people with weakened immune systems. They also face an increased risk for urinary tract, herpes, salmonella, and yeast infections. Corticosteroid and immunosuppressants, treatments used for SLE, also increase the risk for infections, thereby compounding the problem.
About 45% of patients with SLE suffer gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, weight loss, mild abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Severe inflammation of the intestinal tract occurs in less than 5% of patients and causes acute cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and, rarely, intestinal perforation, which can be life-threatening. Fluid retention and swelling can cause intestinal obstruction, which is much less serious but causes the same type of severe pain. Inflammation of the pancreas can be caused by the disease and by corticosteroid therapy.
Arthritis caused by SLE almost never leads to destruction or deformity of joints. The inflammatory process can, however, damage muscles and cause weakness. Patients with SLE also commonly experience reductions in bone mass density (osteoporosis) and have a higher risk for fractures, whether or not they are taking corticosteroids (which can increase the risk for osteoporosis). Women who have SLE should have regular bone mineral density scans to monitor bone health.
Inflamed blood vessels in the eye can reduce blood supply to the retina, resulting in degeneration of nerve cells and a risk of hemorrhage in the retina. The most common symptoms are cotton-wool-like spots on the retina. In about 5% of patients sudden temporary blindness may occur.
In one study, 40% of patients with SLE quit work within 4 years of diagnosis, and many had to modify their work conditions. Significant factors that predicted job loss included high physical demands from the work itself, a more severe condition at the time of diagnosis, and lower educational levels. People with lower income jobs were at particular risk for leaving them.
Women with lupus who conceive face high-risk pregnancies that increase the risks for themselves and their babies. It is important for women to understand the potential complications and plan accordingly. The most important advice is to avoid becoming pregnant when lupus is active.
Research suggests that the following factors predict a successful pregnancy:
Women with lupus are 20 times more likely to die during pregnancy than women without the disease. The risk for maternal death is due to the following serious conditions that can develop during pregnancy:
Despite these obstacles, many women with lupus have healthy pregnancies and deliver healthy babies. To increase the odds of a successful pregnancy, it is important for women to plan carefully before becoming pregnant. Be sure to find knowledgeable doctors with whom you can communicate and trust. Pregnant women with lupus should try to assemble an interdisciplinary health care team that includes a rheumatologist, high-risk obstetrician, and (for patients with kidney disease) a nephrologist.
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