Show Me the Sjogren's Syndrome

Venus Williams pulls out of the US Tennis Open due to autoimmune disease diagnosis

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Venus Williams, one of the most exciting female athletes in recent history, was forced to pull out of the 2011 U.S. Tennis Open due to her recent diagnosis with its accompanying symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome.

Her statement voiced her usual positive, appreciative attitude: "I enjoyed playing my first match here and wish I could continue, but right now I am unable to.” She added,“I am thankful I finally have a diagnosis and am now focused on getting better and returning to the court soon." Keep in mind Venus was the U.S. Open champion in 2000 and 2001, so her decision to pull out of her country's marquee event must be particularly poignant.

What is Sjogren's syndrome?

Sjogren's Syndrome is a difficult to diagnose chronic disorder that occurs when a person's immune system, for reasons unknown, attacks and renders useless moisture-producing glands. These targeted glands include salivary glands in the mouth, and tear-producing glands in the eyes. Bowel, lungs and other organs may also be affected by a lesser degree by the syndrome.

Interestingly, 90 percent of the four million Americans with Sjogren's syndrome are women. This staggering number of four million patients makes the syndrome one of the most prevalent in its category of autoimmune disorders.

Symptoms of Sjogren's Syndrome Include:

Extremely fatigued

Enlarged glands at the top of the jaw

Pain in muscles and joints

Dry throat and mouth

Less taste sense

Difficulty with speech

More cavities

Hoarse voice with a dry cough

Difficulty swallowing and chewing

Unusually dry eyes

Gritty-feeling eyes

Redness in the eyes

Burning of the eyes

Unusual and not always present symptoms of Sjorgren's syndrome include:

Gastrointestinal issues

Inflammation in the liver, pancreas, kidneys or lungs

Lymphatic tissue cancer

Skin rashes

Confusion or memory loss

Thyroid gland abnormalities

Neuropathy (Lack of circulation in hands and feet)


How is Sjogren's Syndrome Diagnosed?

Fifty percent of the patients have primary Sjogren's syndrome. This form of the disease stands alone and isn't accompanied by other autoimmune illnesses. This is called primary Sjogren's syndrome.

The other 50 percent have Sjogren's syndrome, called secondary Sjogren's syndrome, accompanies other similar diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, erythematosus or systemic lupus.

Primary Sjogren's syndrome is diagnosed by an initial clinical observation of dry eyes. Once this is observed, lab tests can be performed to verify that this dryness is caused by an autoimmune mechanism. An inner lip biopsy can also verify that the inflammation causing damage to the salivary glands is Sjogren's syndrome.

In secondary Sjogren's syndrome, the diagnosis comes after a patient who already has an autoimmune disease develops dry eyes and/or mouth.

Treatment for Sjogren's syndrome

There is not a cure for this syndrome, but there are treatments to minimize symptoms and improve a patient's quality of life. The goals for Sjogren's syndrome treatment are always minimizing discomfort and harmful effects of dryness to organs.

Eye Moisture Enhancement-Artificial tears are used to minimize dryness in the eyes, but when the eye isn't responding, sometimes surgery is necessary.

Improved Oral Hygiene-There are toothpastes and gels designed for people with a dry mouth. These products contain low levels of peroxide and hopefully produce an antibacterial reaction to minimize cavity occurrences.

Proper Hydration-Due to dryness, constantly hydrating the body is essential to avoid more debilitating symptoms.

Medicine Available

When internal organs are being affected, high doses of immunosuppressive medications, including prednisone and chemotherapy-like medicine, may be prescribed.

Acetaminophen like Tylenol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aleve and Motrin can be taken to reduce joint and muscle pain.

Diuretic-like medicines that deplete body fluids should not be used in these patients.

Managed Exercise Program

A strict exercise program, especially for an elite athlete like Venus Williams, will probably be recommended. If properly managed, the patient can hopefully overcome the fatigue and muscle pain while maintaining flexibility and gaining strength.


Review Date: 
August 31, 2011