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Systemic Lupus Erythematosus and the Heart

What is systemic lupus erythematosus?

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease. This means that your body's defenses against infection are attacking your own tissue. This causes inflammation. Areas of the skin or joints become painful, red, and swollen. Other parts of the body can also become inflamed, including the muscles, kidneys, nervous system, blood vessels, and heart.

What heart problems can SLE cause?

SLE may cause heart problems such as:

  • pericarditis
  • heart valve problems
  • myocarditis
  • atherosclerosis
  • hypertension.

Pericarditis is inflammation of the sac around the heart. This sac is called the pericardium. It may cause chest pain or a buildup of fluid around the heart. This is the heart problem most often caused by SLE.

SLE can cause heart valve problems by causing a peculiar kind of growth on the surfaces of the heart valves. These growths, called vegetations, usually cause no problems. The uninfected vegetations tend to heal in time. However, this healing may cause scarring that deforms a heart valve leaflet, causing a leaky valve.

Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle that happens in about 1 out of 10 people with SLE. It does not usually affect the function of the heart.

SLE may tend to speed up the process of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis occurs when fats and cholesterol build up in the artery wall. This buildup makes the artery stiffer and narrower than normal and blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the body. A favorite spot for atherosclerosis is the coronary arteries, which supply blood to heart muscle. A coronary artery may become so narrowed that blood cannot flow and a heart attack may follow. In fact, heart attacks are often the cause of death in people who have had SLE for a number of years.

Hypertension, which is high blood pressure, is common with SLE. When your blood pressure is high, your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body. High blood pressure can also damage your arteries. Damaged arteries may be unable to supply the amount of blood the body's organs need.

How are SLE and its heart problems treated?

Doctors have not yet found a cure for lupus, but medicines may be prescribed to limit inflammation. Heart problems are treated the same way whether or not they are related to SLE.

Written by Donald L. Warkentin, MD.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-10
Last reviewed: 2010-01-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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