Lupus Symptoms Diagnosis Headaches Seizures

Medical researchers are unsure how the nervous system is affected by lupus, but lupus patients often have symptoms associated with the nervous system: the brain, spinal cord and nerves. These symptoms include headaches, confusion and seizures. Researchers don’t know whether these symptoms are a direct result of the effects of lupus on the nervous system, the medications used to treat lupus or some other factor.

The Healthy Nervous System

The nervous system relies on the continuous flow of oxygen and nutrients in the blood to function normally. Some studies suggest that the autoantibodies generated by the immune system in lupus attack the nerve cells themselves or blood vessels that feed the nerve cells. The decreased supply of oxygen and nutrients to nerve cells can cause injury or prevent the nerve cells from developing normally. Depending on the location of the cells, certain symptoms such as headaches or movement disorders may develop.

Headaches, Seizures and Central Nervous System Vasculitis

Lupus autoantibodies can cause inflammation of the blood vessels in the brain. This condition is called central nervous system vasculitis. Central nervous system vasculitis is present in 10 percent of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus. It can cause high fevers, headaches, seizures or even psychosis and personality disorders. Whether these symptoms are recurring or isolated they require treatment. If central nervous system vasculitis is confirmed, hospitalization is required. Repeated seizures can lead to coma if left untreated. High doses of steroids are used to treat central nervous system vasculitis.

Seizures and Cognitive Dysfunction

Seizures and strokes can cause scarring of the brain tissue. Brain tissue scarring can obstruct proper nerve signals and cause more frequent seizures. Muscle movements can be impaired, as can memory and concentration. These can be warning signs of dementia or organic brain disease.

Up to 50 percent of lupus patients experience confusion, fatigue, poor memory or the inability to express thoughts. This is known as cognitive dysfunction. As with most symptoms of lupus, these symptoms can come and go.

Lupus Symptoms vs. Medication Side Effects

When doctors are treating lupus patients with medication, they must determine whether the symptoms are a result of the medication or are related to central nervous system vasculitis. Lupus medications such as corticosteroids, anti-malarials or high blood pressure medications can cause side effects like depression, psychosis, headache or dizziness that resemble symptoms of lupus.

The Lupus Headache

At least 20 percent of patients with lupus suffer from severe headaches known as lupus headaches that are similar in severity to migraines. Lupus headaches develop as a result of blood vessel abnormalities. As he blood vessels lose their elasticity and become less flexible,the brain fails to receive a continuous flow of blood. Lupus headaches seem to be connected with Raynaud’s syndrome, a condition in which small arteries spasm and disrupt blood flow.

Testing for Lupus

There are a few tests doctors can employ when testing for lupus. When checking the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, doctors use the single positron emission computed tomography (SPECT) scan, which can show areas of abnormal blood flow. Another tool, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is a sensitive test that allows doctors to see brain lesions. An MRI is often used to look for lesions in patients with another autoimmune disease called multiple sclerosis, another autoimmune disease. The electroencephalogram or EEG is a record of brain wave activity. EEGs can determine whether certain areas of the brain tissue are affected with lupus by picking up irregular wave patterns.

Depression and Lupus

Psychiatric symptoms like depression, personality disorders and even psychosis have been connected to lupus. Depression is the most common psychiatric symptom of lupus. In some cases, lupus may be the primary cause of depression but, more commonly, depression is the result of the toll that chronic illness takes on patients. Their inability to do things they’re used to doing or their worry about the future of the illness may cause patients to become depressed. Medicines like corticosteroids, which are commonly used to treat lupus, can also cause depression. Counseling is an important part of treatment for patients who have lupus that affects the brain or nervous system.


Beers, M.H.