When your back hurts, you might wonder if you strained it while mowing the lawn, need better lumbar support in your car, or are experiencing a new symptom of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) — also known as lupus.
Back pain can have many potential causes, and getting an accurate diagnosis is essential to treating it. In this article, we provide an overview of one potential cause, degenerative disc disease (DDD), and explain how it may be connected to lupus. For questions or a diagnosis, schedule an appointment with your health care provider.
Degenerative disc disease occurs when one or more damaged spinal discs cause pain, numbness, or tingling in the lower back, neck, arms, legs, buttocks, or other parts of the body. Although some wear and tear of the shock-absorbing discs in your spinal column is a normal part of aging, pain is not. Approximately 5 percent of adults with DDD experience back pain.
Causes of DDD include:
Health experts have also linked some autoimmune diseases, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, to DDD.
Lupus occurs when the immune system goes awry, attacking healthy tissues and organs. It can affect any part of the body. When lupus affects the spine, the immune response attacks normal proteins, leading to joint and nerve destruction, bone loss, inflammation, and swelling. As damage occurs, your spinal discs are less able to absorb shock, which can lead to the pain associated with DDD.
Transverse myelitis is a rare nervous system disorder that causes spinal cord inflammation. It affects approximately 1 percent of people with lupus. Although myelitis does not cause DDD, it can cause similar symptoms, like pain, tingling, numbness, and loss of sensation. It usually causes additional symptoms like loss of bladder and bowel control, which can help doctors discern the difference.
Lupus, aging, genetics, some types of arthritis, and other immune-system abnormalities can all cause similar symptoms in your back. Therefore, your health care provider may attribute your back issues to one or multiple causes. If you have concerns about your diagnosis, seek a second opinion.
One member of MyLupusTeam expressed frustration that their care team provided conflicting information about their lupus diagnosis and back issues: “A rheumatologist told me these diseases are unrelated. A spinal surgeon told me he thinks lupus caused my spinal issues. A neurosurgeon told me there’s no way to know. Different answers from everyone!”
Other MyLupusTeam members shared their experiences with lupus and other diagnoses:
Prednisone, a corticosteroid commonly used to treat lupus, increases the risk of developing osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones that can lead to painful fractures of the vertebrae. If your doctor prescribes prednisone or another steroid to address your symptoms of lupus, you may want to ask how you can keep your bones as strong as possible. Some health care providers recommend taking a calcium or hormone supplement or increasing vitamin D intake.
Your spinal cord carries messages between your brain and body that help you move and function. The three parts of your spinal column — cervical, thoracic, and lumbar — literally hold you up. If you experience back pain, joint pain, or any other pain or discomfort that could be connected to your spine or back, seek medical advice from a health care professional.
To determine the source of your pain, your doctor might recommend blood tests, X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or other diagnostic tests. Depending on the results, they might prescribe corticosteroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or immunosuppressive drugs to ease your symptoms and reduce inflammation, or they may recommend physical therapy to strengthen your muscles and increase your range of motion. If you do not get relief, schedule a follow-up to discuss other options.
MyLupusTeam is the social network for people with lupus and their loved ones. On MyLupusTeam, more than 223,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lupus.
Do you have lupus and degenerative disc disease? Share your experience in the comments below.