Finding Relief from Head Pains

Systemic lupus erythematosus, more commonly referred to as “lupus” is a chronic, systemic disease. As such, it can cause symptoms that affect most organ systems of the body. As such, headaches are common in people with lupus.

According to WebMD, about 1.5 million Americans currently live with lupus. Approximately half of these get regular headaches. Research indicates that the headaches may be migraines, though a “lupus headache” can take on many forms. Looking for some treatments? Consider Benlysta, a medication used to treat systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a chronic autoimmune disease.

Lupus Warning Signs

  • Fatigue.
  • Joint pain and stiffness.
  • Skin rashes, particularly a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose.
  • Fever.
  • Chest pain with deep breathing.
  • Hair loss.
  • Photosensitivity (sensitivity to sunlight).
  • Raynaud's phenomenon (fingers and toes turning white or blue in response to cold or stress).
  • Mouth or nose ulcers.
  • Swollen glands.

What is Lupus?

Lupus is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body mistakes healthy tissue for something foreign and attacks itself. In the cause of lupus, the entire immune system may be affected, which means that almost every organ system may have symptoms.

The most common, initial symptom of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash that covers the nose and the cheeks. Though this is prevalent in most people, it doesn’t occur in every person with lupus. Other symptoms that may occur include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Dry eyes.
  • Chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Lesions that appear and/or worsen with exposure to the sun.
  • Confusion and memory loss, which sufferers tend to call “brain fog.”
  • Hair loss.
  • Fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to the cold.

And, of course - headaches.

What is a “Lupus Headache”?

As noted earlier, research indicates that the majority of lupus headaches may be attributed to migraines. Other potential causes of lupus headaches are as follows:

  • People with lupus are also more likely to experience Raynaud’s phenomenon, which causes the blood vessels to shunt a decreased blood flow to the extremities, which is often linked to migraine.
  • People with lupus could also have primary headaches. Primary headaches mean that the headache isn’t linked to lupus at all or could be related to the stress of managing lupus.
  • Some people with lupus also have something called antiphospholipid syndrome. This is a complication of lupus that causes the immune system to attack fat in living cells, which increases the risk of clotting. As such, headaches could be an indicator of big problems, such as a stroke.
  • Some lupus medications can also increase the likelihood of headaches because of their side effect profile.

Treating Lupus Headaches

Treating lupus headaches can be difficult. It is essential to get to the root cause. If the headache is primary, likely self-care measures are sufficient. If the headache is related to the antiphospholipid syndrome, much larger measures will need to be undertaken - not only to treat the headache but to prevent blood clots and subsequent strokes.

Often imaging is performed to rule out issues with the blood vessels. Barring issues with the blood vessels, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are typically prescribed to help reduce inflammation. Examples include ibuprofen and naproxen. Should these not be effective, there are prescription NSAIDs and steroids that a healthcare provider may bridge to next.

If the headache is deemed to be a migraine, healthcare providers have a slew of treatment options available that can be helpful. Some treatments have been available for years, whereas others are new and have fewer side effects. Your provider will help choose the best treatment option for you, based on your current health status as well as the other medications that you are on.

Regardless of the type of headache or treatment plan, self-care is likely going to help, at least to some extent. Here are some options that researchers recommend, time and time again:

  • Meditation.
  • Acupuncture.
  • Supplements (speak with a pharmacist or your healthcare provider before starting a supplement to make sure that it does not interact with any of your medications).
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Migraine Prevention Diet

There are various migraine prevention diets that all tout excellent results - the end of headaches! You’ll never feel better! End headaches for life!

In reality, a migraine prevention diet aims to eliminate foods that commonly trigger headaches, then reintroduce them slowly; this allows you to see if these foods are triggering. Some people identify many food triggers, while others find nothing. Keep in mind that a migraine prevention diet is yet another tool, just like meditation or CBT.

Perhaps the most commonly “prescribed” migraine prevention diet was created by Dr. David Buccholz, MD of Johns Hopkins University. You can read it in its entirety here. Some of the key foods to avoid are as follows:

  • Milk and dark chocolate (white chocolate is ok).
  • Caffeine.
  • Cheese (fresh cheese such as American, cream cheese and cottage cheese is ok).
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG).
  • Dairy products such as yogurt, buttermilk and sour cream.
  • Nuts, including nut butter.
  • Processed meats.
  • Alcohol and vinegar, though white wine, vodka and white vinegar are typically tolerated.
  • Citrus fruits and juices.
  • Bananas, raises, plums, figs and avocados.
  • Lima, fava and kidney beans; pea pods, sauerkraut and onions.
  • Aspartame.

Belysta for System Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

Benlysta is a medication used to treat systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a chronic autoimmune disease. It is specifically designed for individuals who have not responded well to other lupus medications. Benlysta works by targeting and inhibiting B lymphocyte stimulator (BLyS), a protein that plays a role in the immune system's attack on healthy tissues in people with lupus. By reducing the activity of BLyS, Benlysta helps decrease inflammation and other symptoms associated with lupus, such as joint pain, fatigue and skin rashes.

The Bottom Line

Headaches are, unfortunately, a very common symptom for people who have lupus. Though they can indicate an issue with the blood vessels, they are often migraine or primary headaches, indicating that there is not a larger issue at play. The treatment plan will be dictated by what type of headache is diagnosed, but self-care and a migraine prevention diet can help most types of headaches, in conjunction with the prescribed treatment plan.