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Systemic Lupus Erythematosus : Symptoms
Western Medicine Chinese Medicine

The onset of SLE can be highly variable, as can be the progression of the disease. Early symptoms may be non-specific and include muscular pain, nausea, vomiting, headaches, depression and easy bruising. Sometimes symptoms are more specific and more than one may be present. Symptoms may be mild or severe, fleeting or persistent.

General symptoms
Fatigue occurs in virtually all patients with SLE and may be experienced with the onset of SLE or only with a relapse of the disorder.
Swelling of the ankles is common.
There is often a gain or loss in body-weight.
Low-grade fever is seen in 80 per cent of patients.
It is usually an episodic disease (occurs from time to time).

Skin and mucous membranes
The skin is affected in over 70 per cent of cases. Often, rashes occur after exposure to ultraviolet light and such exposure may lead to major flares involving other organ systems as well. Abnormal sensitivity to sunlight is experienced by about half of all patients with SLE and is more common in those who are fair and light-skinned.

Typical ''butterfly" distribution facial rash seen in SLE.

A classical characteristic of SLE is the "butterfly" rash that occurs across the face. Hair-loss is also common. Mouth ulcers occur frequently in active disease, but they may be relatively painless. A painful throat may accompany a flare.

Vascular system (blood vessels)
A disorder of the vascular system known as Raynaud's phenomenon occurs in 20 to 30 per cent of patients. Classically, the fingers turn white followed by a bluish cyanotic hue, finally replaced by a red flush as dilatation of the blood vessels occurs. The full three-color change does not always happen, but excessive sensitivity of the hands to the cold is common.

Musculoskeletal system
Painful and arthritic joints are the most common symptoms of SLE and experienced by almost all patients. Symptoms can occur in any joint and often clear up in one to three days. Fingers, hands wrists and knees are the most commonly affected. Less frequently, ankles, elbows, shoulders and hips are involved. Stiffness on waking can last several minutes.

Renal system
In 50 per cent of SLE patients, the kidneys become involved. There may be rapid onset of an acute and painful kidney inflammation or traces of blood or protein may be found on analysis of the urine. Urinary tract infections are common.

Nervous system
Nervous disorders occur in virtually all SLE patients. Anxiety and/or depression are common in response to the illness and the threat of loss of health, family and job. The prospect of disability and dependency can be very distressing.

Symptoms may include insomnia, loss of appetite, constipation, palpitations, diarrhea, over-breathing, memory loss, emotional instability, confusion and decreased concentration. Seizures (convulsions) occur in more than 10 per cent of patients. The incidence of stroke, with resulting abnormalities of sensation and power, is similar.

Headaches are a frequent complaint and are usually due to stress and tension. Migraine occurs in 20 per cent of patients.

Cardiorespiratory system
Chest pain, cough and breathlessness occur frequently. These result from a variety of processes involving the lungs, the lining of the chest wall and diaphragm. Pain on breathing is commonly experienced and is often accompanied by chest discomfort. It may be worsened by lying down.

Gastrointestinal tract
Involvement of the gastrointestinal tract is common. Up to 25 per cent of patients have esophageal complaints, including difficulty swallowing. Indigestion, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting are also common.

Anemia occurs in at least 50 per cent of patients. On laboratory analysis, abnormalities in the blood cells and clotting mechanisms are commonly found.


TCM practitioners will examine the sufferer and categorize the symptoms under special syndrome groups known as "disharmony patterns." Certain disharmony patterns are present during different stages of the disease. The presentation of SLE is often complicated, but some common patterns can be classified:

Excessive toxic heat accumulation

Individuals present with persistent high-grade fevers, the appearance of a rash on the face or other areas, joint pain, muscle soreness or pain, fatigue, thirst and a desire for cold drinks. Irritability, insomnia, constipation and production of dark-colored, scanty urine are also common.

In severe cases, loss of consciousness, delirium, muscle spasms, bruising or petechiae (small, flat blood spots under the skin), the spitting up of blood and the presence of blood in the urine or stool may also occur. Exposure to sunlight and the ingestion of certain foods or drugs are factors that can exacerbate the disease and induce flare-ups.

Blood yin deficiency
  In this deficiency there is a persistent low-grade fever, a hot sensation in the chest, palms and soles of the feet, irritability, fatigue and a reluctance to speak. There is general swelling of tissues, redness of the face, spontaneous perspiration and night sweats, and loin and joint pain.
Toxic factor attacking the heart
  Symptoms include palpitations, shortness of breath, chest fullness with a feeling of oppression and local heat, spontaneous perspiration, pallor and cold limbs.
Kidney yin deficiency
  Individuals usually experience pain in the back, legs and feet, limb weakness and a sensation of hotness in the face. In more serious cases, sores appear in the mouth and on the tongue, hot sensations are felt in the chest, palms and soles of the feet, and the individual feels emotionless. Sometimes low-grade fever and swelling may be present.
Impairment of the liver due to heat
  In this disharmony pattern, pain in the upper sides of the abdomen, abdominal distension, irregular and painful menstruation in females, skin rashes, bruising, insomnia, dizziness and loss of appetite are commonly experienced.