By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
What is Lupus? Lupus is considered a chronic autoimmune disease, a condition which causes the immune system to attack the body’s own normal tissues. The most common lupus symptoms are extreme fatigue and a particularly characteristic lupus butterfly rash, a skin rash that appears on the face. Acupuncture and TCM treatment for lupus can help to relieve joint pain, inflammation, rashes, and fatigue.
Lupus is much more common in women than in men, and usually first appears during a woman’s reproductive years – between the ages of 18-45. About 90% of people who have lupus are women. Women of color have an even higher risk of developing lupus.
As with other autoimmune diseases, the precise causes of lupus are somewhat mysterious. What causes lupus is still not clear to medical researchers. It may have something to do with a person’s genetic makeup. Because lupus is so much more common in women, it is believed that it may have something to do with estrogen, the female hormone.
There are different types of lupus. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE lupus) is the most common form of lupus, and it can affect the whole body, causing widespread inflammation and serious chronic fatigue.
Cutaneous lupus erythematosus primarily affects the skin, causing rashes, skin lesions (discoid lupus), irritated blood vessels, photosensitivity, and hair loss. The most common chronic form of cutaneous lupus is discoid lupus erythematosus, which causes scaly, round lesions to form on the skin. People with skin lupus are very sensitive to sunlight and must take precautions to avoid too much sun exposure, or even fluorescent lights. Lupus rash may resemble a bad sunburn.
It can often take a long time to get a lupus diagnosis. There is no one test that can conclusively show that a person has lupus. Doctors will generally look at a person’s range of symptoms, and run a variety of lab tests. An antinuclear antibody test (ANA) can indicate if the body’s immune system is producing autoantibodies–antibodies that attack normal tissue. Lupus symptoms can change, seeming to come and go, or “flare-up” when a person is triggered by something in their environment–often light exposure or emotional stress. During other periods of remission, symptoms abate, and a person with lupus may feel well for a while until another flare occurs.
Often lupus causes extreme fatigue, to the extent that people may find it difficult or impossible to get on with their daily work and activities when they are in the throes of a flare-up. The combination of chronic pain and chronic fatigue can lead to feelings of depression. With this kind of disease, a defeating sort of cycle can develop, in which stress, anxiety, pain, and fatigue keep feeding and perpetuating each other. Lupus is also associated with fibromyalgia; sometimes the two conditions overlap.
There is currently no cure for lupus. Medical treatment usually involves the use of medications like corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. Acupuncture and TCM can be used as an alternative or adjunct therapy for lupus, as acupuncture can help alleviate systemic inflammation, reduce joint pain, and help to improve fatigue. Acupuncture can also help to relieve the physical and emotional effects of stress and depression.
Top 10 Lupus Symptoms
Lupus can affect each individual person differently. Signs of lupus that might occur in both men and women include:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Swelling in hands, feet, and/or around the eyes
- Low grade fever
- Butterfly rash on face, sores around the mouth and/or nose (lupus erythematosus)
- Hair loss
- Sensitivity to light
- Raynaud’s disease – loss of sensation in digits, finger and/or toes turn yellow, white or blue when cold, or under stress
- Chest pain when taking a deep breath
The lupus butterfly rash, also known as “malar rash”, may be the most distinctive symptom of lupus; it covers the cheeks and nose. The rash is red and patchy, caused by the dilation of capillaries under the surface of the skin, known as erythema, or lupus erythematosus. This lupus rash does not appear in every case, but it may appear in the majority of cases.
Lupus anticoagulant (LA) is an antibody that is abnormally produced in some people with lupus. While its name sounds like it works against clotting; it actually does the opposite. High levels of LA can cause inappropriate blood clotting, or thrombosis. This problem can cause increased risk of miscarriage in women. Some people have LA without necessarily having lupus.
Women may experience menstrual problems like irregular periods or heavy bleeding that are related to lupus. Women with lupus are also at a higher risk for developing heart disease, kidney disease, and osteoporosis. Lupus symptoms women of color, in particular, (African-American women and Hispanic women) may develop are serious complications related to lupus at a younger age, including an increased tendency to suffer from seizures, strokes, and swelling around the heart.
Rheumatologists specialize in treating musculoskeletal problems and the autoimmune diseases that often cause joint pain and inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, and gout, as well as lupus.
Symptoms of joint pain due to lupus are usually treated with steroid medications like prednisone that help to reduce inflammation. Hydroxychloroquine, (an anti-malarial medication), is often prescribed to help prevent flares of symptoms from SLE lupus. Unfortunately, both of these types of medications can cause serious side effects, especially when they are used on a long-term basis. They do not address the root causes of lupus.
A relatively new treatment for lupus, Benlysta, is administered intravenously. It works by blocking a kind of protein that is involved in the production of autoantibodies – the immune cells that attack healthy tissues. This treatment, while different from other immunosuppressive drugs, can also cause side effects, including being more susceptible to infections. Some people have a severe allergic reaction to Benlysta, while others experience insomnia and severe depression.
Acupuncture for lupus and other rheumatologic conditions offers relief from painful symptoms and chronic fatigue without negative side effects.
How Can Acupuncture Help Lupus?
Lupus manifests as massive systemic inflammation in the body: in the tissues, organs, skin, and joints. Western medicine tends to always rely on cortisone/steroids to deal with inflammation, but this only works temporarily, like a band-aid.
Even though we don’t know exactly what causes lupus, we do know it is an endocrine disorder, or an inherited condition, or something in the environment that is causing the body’s atypical autoimmune response.
According to TCM, inflammation comes from too much heat in the body, or what we call “empty heat:” a lack of fluid. Without sufficient water, the body can’t control excess heat. We call this yin deficiency or kidney yin deficiency. This excessive heat condition can be triggered by external forces like the heat and light of the sun’s rays, or by spending a lot of time in a hot, dry space with a heater and no humidifier. This is part of what might cause the inflammation, fevers, and skin rashes associated with lupus.
Lupus nephritis, which involves the kidneys, is viewed by TCM as being related to deficiencies of qi or yang energy in the kidneys and spleen. Blood stasis can also be a part of the presentation. Treatment with acupuncture and herbs will often focus on removing blockages that cause stagnation of blood and qi, strengthening the kidneys, and clearing heat and toxins from the body.
Clinical trials in China have compared patients with SLE lupus treated with prednisone only to those treated both with steroids and Chinese herbs, and found that patients receiving TCM treatment as an adjunct fared better overall and were able to reduce their use of the steroids.
One study showed that 80% of participants experienced a significant improvement in joint pain, fatigue, and skin rash after ten sessions of acupuncture treatment.
Another case study of patients with discoid lupus showed that lesions had improved by 87% after receiving a course of auricular-acupuncture (ear acupuncture) therapy.
Top 3 Tips for Helping Lupus Naturally
Reducing inflammation at its source usually means making some changes in behaviors. Not only lupus, but other chronic illnesses like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. have so much to do with lifestyle and habits that are not conducive to optimal health. For a more thorough discussion of how to eat right and manage your habits to reduce inflammation, see our blog article specifically addressing Inflammation. Here are some basic anti-inflammatory habits to embrace:
- Reduce or eliminate all non-necessary drugs and medications. Long-term reliance on drugs to cover up pain hampers your ability to know what is really going on with your body. It also potentially damages the immune system and organs.
- Reduce or eliminate foods that create more heat and and acidity in the body. This includes coffee, alcohol, red meat, spicy foods, and crispy, fried foods. TCM nutrition provides very specific guidelines for warming and cooling foods, so working with a qualified acupuncture professional will be very helpful to each individual patient.
- Get adequate sleep – ideally, eight hours every night. This is when the immune system repairs itself. When people go for years, only sleeping three or fours hours a night, they can do serious damage, causing massive problems like lupus to develop.
It is up to you to care for your body as if it were your most precious resource, because it is. When you make your health your top priority, every decision you make about what to eat, when to sleep, and how to spend your time and energy matters. Be mindful of your own needs; don’t cover up your pain with drugs, or trash your body with junk food. Your best chance for a happy life starts with healthy habits.
Acupuncture Near Me for Lupus
Autoimmune disorders like lupus can be devastating, not only because they are physically and mentally debilitating, but because they can be so difficult for doctors to understand and treat effectively. The TCM approach to lupus is holistic and takes into consideration a person’s foundational constitution, lifestyle, and emotions, as well as looking carefully at which imbalances in the organ systems are causing the physical symptoms. If you have been diagnosed with lupus, or are not sure about what might be causing severe fatigue, joint pain, or skin rashes to flare up periodically, working with an experienced acupuncture practitioner may help you to manage these symptoms and experience a marked improvement in your quality of life.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.