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Lupus can affect the digestive organs and cause intense stomach pain.
Tom Le Goff/Photodisc/Getty Images
The autoimmune disorder lupus can affect any organ in the body. The exact cause of lupus is unknown but, like other autoimmune diseases, an overactive immune system leads to chronic inflammation and organ damage, if left untreated. Chronic inflammation from lupus typically results in joint pain and kidney problems. But it can also cause digestive system trouble and stomach pains. Inflammation of intestinal blood vessels, inflammatory bowel disorders and infectious complications are among the most common causes of abdominal pain in people with lupus.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, lupus occurs most frequently among women of childbearing age. This sometimes makes it tough to diagnose the cause of stomach pain, because women in this age group may experience abdominal pain for a number of reasons unrelated to lupus. A condition known as lupus vasculitis is one of the most common causes of abdominal pain in people with lupus, say researchers in a June 2010 article in the "World Journal of Gastroenterology." Inflammation of the blood vessels that carry blood to the intestines leads to vasculitis, which is characterized by reduced blood flow to the intestines. Small blood clots may form in the blood vessels, further limiting blood flow. Nausea, vomiting, stomach pains and diarrhea are typical symptoms of lupus vasculitis. Treatment with high-dose steroids given by an intravenous infusion is usually required to blunt inflammation and ease symptoms.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Stomach and abdominal pain in people with lupus is sometimes due to inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Authors of a review article published in October 1999 in the journal "Rheumatology" report that the inflammatory bowel disorders ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease have been historically linked to lupus. Lupus has been associated with these conditions, in part because some of the medications used to treat IBD can trigger a form of disorder called drug-induced lupus erythematosus. Inflammatory bowel disorders lead to inflammation and ulceration of the lining of the intestines, causing stomach pains, abdominal bloating and diarrhea. High-dose steroids given with azathioprine (Imuran, Azasan) or hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) are often used to address IBD symptoms associated with lupus.
Steroids and other lupus medications suppress the immune system to block inflammation. As a result, people with lupus are at an increased risk for infections -- including intestinal infections that can cause fever, abdominal pain and severe diarrhea. Lupus makes people particularly susceptible to infections due to Salmonella bacteria, researchers note in the January 2000 issue of "Rheumatology." Salmonella can cause diarrhea and lead to gallbladder infection, another source of stomach pains. In these cases, antibiotics and surgical removal of the gallbladder may be necessary.
Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, is a possible cause of stomach pains in people with lupus. Pancreatitis usually occurs in the setting of heavy drinking, gallstones or high levels of trigylcerides -- a type of fat that can irritate the pancreas. Researchers speculate that in people with lupus, chronic inflammation likely contributes to pancreatitis. The June 2010 article in "World Journal of Gastroenterology" notes that pancreatitis is most likely to occur in people with other symptoms of active lupus, such as skin rashes and joint pain. While steroids can help treat lupus-related pancreatitis, they must be used cautiously, as steroids are also a potential pancreatitis trigger.