For many people, joint pain and stiffness are the first symptoms of lupus or a sign that a flare is coming. Joints in the hands, wrists and feet get stiff and painful to move, sometimes so much so that it is hard to get up from a chair or button a shirt. The shoulders, knees and ankles also get stiff sometimes. A doctor called a rheumatologist specializes in treating these achy joints (“arthralgias”) as well as swollen and painful joints.
When lupus is active, there is inflammation (increased heat, swelling, and pain) throughout the body. As part of this inflammation, a thin lining in certain spaces around the joints grows and thickens. This change in size causes pain and swelling in the joints as well as tendons and special fluid-filled sacs that normally lessen to rub between body parts. Inflammation also can lead to the release of body chemicals that break down bones and destroy a type of very hard connective tissue called cartilage.
No, because the bones and joints do not (usually) get damaged permanently, as they do with arthritis. But the pain and stiffness of lupus can still be very difficult to deal with, and some of the ways of handling arthritis work well for lupus.
Two out of three people with lupus at some point complain of muscle aches. Often these aches are between the elbow and neck, or between the knee and the hip. While the aching can be intense, the muscle does not actually weaken, which is good. The muscle can also get inflamed (reddened, warm, and swollen), although this is less common. A separate illness called fibromyalgia, which involves extreme muscle pain and tenderness at particular body points, sometimes happens at the same time as lupus.
Some over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen, may lessen pain and inflammation. Some people get relief by putting heating pads on painful areas or taking warm showers and baths to lessen stiffness. Others feel better with cold packs. Find what works for you, but always check with your doctor first.
Try resting and lifting up the joint (pillows and blankets are good props) as much as possible. Avoid putting weight on it. Warm showers or baths can lessen stiffness. Stay away from activity that increases pain, tenderness, or swelling or makes your muscles “burn.” A “physical therapist” (or trained friend) can gently move the inflamed joint to prevent extreme stiffness, but check with your doctor first. An “occupational therapist” can help with ways for coping and getting your strength back if tasks such as cleaning, bathing, and cooking are hard to do.
Resting and protecting joints are very important, but exercise keeps the muscles, bones, and tendons that make up the joint as healthy and strong as possible. So avoid weight-bearing exercises if you have joint pain, but also look for ways to stay active, such as gentle yoga or walking 30 minutes daily. Keeping active helps to control weight, boost energy, and put you in a better mood. Do what you can during a flare, and try to exercise more as you start to feel better.
Although much less common, other joint problems are possible, such as damage to the hip joint (possibly leading to severe arthritis), tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and the development of small lumps in the joints of the hands. Ask your doctor for more information about how to handle these problems.
Reviewer: Daniel J. Wallace, MD