It is unclear whether patients use alternative medicine because of psychological distress associated with their disease or philosophical congruence with this form of treatment. Therefore, we have studied why patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) employ alternative medicine. We interviewed 192 consecutive Chinese SLE outpatients in a tertiary-care rheumatology centre. We recorded their demographic data, usage of traditional Chinese medication, the predominant form of alternative medicine in this group, and the Rheumatology Attitudes Index score. We distinguished two types of alternative medicine users: those who use it with intent to treat SLE (disease-specific users; 73 users, 38.0%) and those who use it for cultural and other reasons (general-health users; 55 users, 28.6%). Users regarded their disease as mild compared to nonusers. Disease-specific users were distinguished from nonusers by having Chinese as a first language (odds ratio, 2.14-8.83), greater learned helplessness (odds ratio, 1.02-1.29), and an earlier age of diagnosis (odds ratio, 0.92-0.98 for older age). In conclusion, the majority of our lupus patients have used alternative medicine. The motivations of general-health and disease-specific users are different. The patients' first language and perceived helplessness influenced the disease-specific users, while general-health users were subject to neither of these.