How Is Lupus Diagnosed?
Diagnosing lupus often begins with a visit to your primary care provider (PCP) who will evaluate your symptoms, review your medical history, perform a physical exam and order tests.1
One of the most common symptoms of lupus is joint or muscle pain.2 If you have this symptom and it doesn’t appear to be associated with a specific orthopedic problem, your PCP may refer you to a rheumatologist, who specializes in joint and muscle diseases and systemic autoimmune disorders.3 You may also want to see a rheumatologist if you have a family history of lupus.
If you receive a lupus diagnosis, you may see additional specialists, such as a cardiologist, dermatologist, nephrologist or gastroenterologist, based on the organs affected by the condition. Women diagnosed with lupus during pregnancy will likely see a perinatologist.4
Understanding Symptoms of Lupus
In autoimmune rheumatic diseases, your immune system attacks healthy tissue, which leads to inflammation that in turn causes symptoms such as joint pain and swelling.5 Connective tissue diseases and other autoimmune diseases can affect many different organs, so you may notice symptoms throughout your body.
Common lupus symptoms in women and men include6:
- Joint pain or swelling
- Muscle pain
- Unexplained fever
- Ongoing feelings of fatigue
- Chest pain when breathing deeply
- Sensitivity to sunlight or other light
- Purple or pale fingers or toes due to cold or stress
Testing to Diagnose Lupus
Because symptoms of lupus can mirror those of other conditions, your doctor will likely not diagnose the condition based on symptoms alone.1
Testing plays an important role in diagnosing lupus. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single test that will offer a definitive answer. Your care team will combine your reported symptoms and health history with multiple test results to determine whether you have the condition.
Common tests that help diagnose lupus include1:
Blood tests. There are a few different blood tests used to diagnose lupus. The standard is antinuclear antibody, or ANA, testing. ANA testing looks for signs that your immune system is producing autoantibodies, which attack healthy tissue instead of harmful viruses or bacteria.8 According to the Lupus Foundation of America, 97% of people with lupus have their ANA test results come back positive for autoantibodies.9 However, even people without an autoimmune disease can get positive ANA test results. The advanced AVISE CTD lupus test has patented biomarkers to provide more accurate lupus diagnostic information than other tests on the market. It’s typically recommended following a positive ANA test.10
You may need other blood tests in addition to ANA and AVISE CTD testing. Lupus can lead to low blood cell counts, as well as blood-clotting issues. Your doctor may order a complete blood count, which measures blood cells, and a test that measures how quickly your blood clots.9
Urine tests. Lupus can affect your kidneys. Urine samples help determine if your kidneys are working properly.9
Biopsy. A small sample of skin or kidney tissue is removed. It is then reviewed under a microscope for signs that indicate an autoimmune disease.
Your Role in Diagnosis
If you’re experiencing lupus symptoms, a firm diagnosis helps you get the treatment you need. To help your care team, there are two things you can do.
1. Be prepared. Know as much as you can about your symptoms and when they appear. This helps your doctor take the appropriate next steps. Our lupus symptoms checklist allows you to document your symptoms and create a customized report to take to your appointment. The checklist can also help you track flares, and increases in lupus activity that can come and go.
2. Work with your provider. Lupus is a mysterious disease that requires many tests for diagnosis. Following a positive ANA test, talk to your provider about seeing a rheumatologist and ordering the AVISE CTD lupus test.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnosing and Treating Lupus. CDC website. Reviewed June 27, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/lupus/basics/diagnosing.htm. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Lupus Symptoms. Office on Women’s Health website. Updated February 18, 2021. https://www.womenshealth.gov/lupus/lupus-symptoms. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- American College of Rheumatology. What Is a Rheumatologist? American College of Rheumatology website. Reviewed May 2021. https://www.rheumatology.org/i-am-a/patient-caregiver/health-care-team/what-is-a-rheumatologist. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- Lupus Foundation of America. Doctors Who Treat Lupus. Lupus Foundation of America website. Reviewed N/A. https://www.lupus.org/resources/doctors-who-treat-lupus. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. Autoimmune Disorders. MedlinePlus website. Reviewed April 24, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000816.htm. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus Symptoms. Lupus Foundation of America website. Reviewed March 10, 2017. https://www.lupus.org/resources/common-symptoms-of-lupus. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus and the Skin. Lupus Foundation of America website. Reviewed April 16, 2021. https://www.lupus.org/resources/how-lupus-affects-the-skin. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- NIH National Cancer Institute. Autoantibody. National Cancer Institute website. Reviewed N/A. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/autoantibody. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- Lupus Foundation of America. Lab Tests for Lupus. Lupus Foundation of America website. Reviewed July 15, 2013. https://www.lupus.org/resources/lab-tests-for-lupus. Accessed July 18, 2022.