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April 2, 2009 – Vol. 3 • No. 8
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Questions & Answers

1. If a woman has lupus when she gives birth, is her baby born with the disease?

About 3 percent of babies born to mothers with lupus are born with a special type of lupus called neonatal lupus. Different from regular lupus, neonatal lupus is temporary (lasting only a few months) and characterized by a rash and blood count abnormalities. By 3 to 6 months old, the baby usually no longer shows any signs of neonatal lupus. Sometimes, a baby born to a mother with lupus can be born with an abnormal heartbeat. This special type of heartbeat is permanent, but can be treated with a pacemaker and usually results in no other complications. Overall, though, the chance of the baby developing lupus is very low.

2. How can a person determine if joint pain is due to arthritis or lupus?

Many with lupus experience joint pain at some point in their life, but unlike arthritis, the joint pain caused by lupus is usually temporary. If you have arthritis, you experience constant swelling of the joints and joint pain that is less severe than what is seen with lupus. Determining the difference can get confusing and is best left to your doctor. If you are experiencing any pains in your joints, talk to your doctor and ask about the best ways to take care of your joints.

3. Can lupus cause osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis or bone loss occurs when the bones become less dense and less strong, making it easier for them to fracture or break. If you have lupus, you are more at risk for developing osteoporosis, but you can take steps to prevent increased bone loss. Individuals with lupus have an increased risk for osteoporosis for two important reasons. First, certain medications used to treat lupus (glucocorticoids) can cause the bones to decrease the amount of calcium they absorb, making them weaker over time. Second, because lupus can cause fatigue, those with lupus are less likely to engage in important physical exercises that can increase bone strength. If you have lupus, talk to your doctor about your medication dosage and about finding an exercise plan that is right for you.

4. Why is it important for a person with lupus to closely monitor blood pressure and cholesterol levels?

Individuals with lupus are at increased risk for heart disease, so it is important to make sure your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are within healthy ranges. Lupus can cause arteries to swell, raising blood pressure, and patients with lupus more commonly have plaque (cholesterol from fats) buildup in their arteries, both of which can increase your risk of heart disease.

5. Can children and men also get lupus?

Although lupus is most common in women between the ages of 15 and 45, lupus can occur at any age and in both males and females. The symptoms are the same in both adults and children — fatigue, rash and/or achy joints. Similarly, a diagnosis is made based on the presentation of symptoms and lab tests done by your doctor. Although there is no cure for lupus, the disease can be successfully managed and complications can be minimized with proper treatment. Treatment, regardless of age and gender, will vary depending on how much the disease has progressed.

6. Should people with lupus refrain from exercise?

Exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially for those with lupus. Although exercise can be difficult for individuals with lupus because of fatigue and joint pain, studies have shown that regular exercise can actually alleviate some of the symptoms. For example, regular exercise (like walking and stretching) can reduce fatigue, improve your range of motion, help with arthritis and help slow the onset of complications associated with lupus-like osteoporosis. Begin by talking to your doctor about which exercises are best for you.

7. Is lupus hereditary?

Doctors believe that lupus results from an interaction between our genes and our environment, but the exact cause is not known. Although lupus tends to appear in certain families, it can develop in individuals with no family history of the disease. If you have any concerns or are experiencing some common symptoms associated with lupus, such as a large butterfly-shaped rash on your face, fatigue, or joint pains or stiffness, speak with your doctor as soon as possible.

Marina C. Cervantes of the Disparities Solutions Center participated in the preparation of these responses.

Joseph R. Betancourt
Joseph R. Betancourt, M.D.
Director of the Disparities Solutions Center, Massachusetts General Hospital

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