Differences Between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus

Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are two different conditions, however, both are autoimmune diseases that attack the body in a similar fashion. Autoimmune diseases occur when your immune system malfunctions and your body can't distinguish between your cells and tissues and that of foreign matter, like viruses. Rather than simply producing antibodies to attack antigens (viruses, bacteria, and other invaders), your immune system creates autoantibodies that attack your organs and tissues.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks your joint linings and, in severe cases, your internal organs. RA can affect the body beyond the joints, attacking the eyes, mouth, and lungs. Researchers aren't sure what causes RA, but genes, environment, and hormones might contribute to the disease. 

Over long periods of time, the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis can cause your bones to erode and joints to become deformed. RA can also cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. RA typically starts in the hands, wrists, ankles, and feet but can eventually affect any joint. RA is more common in women than it is men. It can begin at any time in life, including childhood, but onset typically occurs between ages 35 and 50.

There is no cure for RA but treatments can help manage symptoms and slow disease progression. Medications used for RA include anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, immunosuppressive drugs, steroids, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Your rheumatologist might also recommend physical therapy as part of your treatment plan. In cases of severe rheumatoid arthritis, you may need a joint replacement, depending on which joints are affected. 

What Is Lupus?

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that comes in flares, with your immune system attacking different tissues and organs. There are several types of lupus: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), drug-induced lupus, cutaneous (discoid lupus) and neonatal lupus. Lupus can affect any part of the body, but most commonly attacks your skin, joints, heart, lungs, blood, kidneys, and brain.

SLE is the most common type of lupus, with the condition being diagnosed more often in women than in men. Certain racial groups such as African Americans, Asians and those of Hispanic descent are more likely to develop lupus as well. 

Beyond race and sex, environmental factors, age, and medication can affect whether or not you develop lupus. If you have lupus or are predisposed to lupus, sunlight can trigger a lupus flare. Lupus is also more commonly diagnosed in younger people between the ages of 15 and 44. In some cases, lupus is caused by medications, known as drug-induced lupus. In cases of drug-induced lupus, symptoms usually resolve after the medication causing the problem is discontinued. 

Symptoms of lupus include: 

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain 
  • A butterfly-shaped facial rash 
  • Chest pain
  • Photosensitivity 
  • Dry eyes
  • Headaches

There is no cure for lupus, however, it can be treated with medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antimalarials, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants. In most cases, as with rheumatoid arthritis, your treatment and care will be managed by a rheumatologist—a doctor who specializes in musculoskeletal diseases and certain autoimmune conditions. 

If you think you may have lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, speak with your doctor and ask for a referral to see a rheumatologist for diagnostic tests. 

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Article Sources

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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Arthritis of the Wrist and Hand. Updated January 4, 2017.

  3. Kontzias A. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Merck Manual Professional Version. Updated December 2018.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lupus Symptoms. Updated October 17, 2018.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). Updated October 17, 2018.

  6. Nevares AM. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). Merck Manual Professional Version. Updated February 2018.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnosing and Treating Lupus. Updated October 17, 2018.

Additional Reading

  • Source: Rheumatoid Arthritis. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health.