Venus Williams Adjusting to Sjögren's

Tennis star accommodating her game around autoimmune disease

(RxWiki News) It’s been a difficult couple of years for American tennis legend Venus Williams. Last year she only played in four tournaments. But, Venus did bring home a gold medal by winning the Olympics doubles event.

Questions about her ability to play tennis have floated around since she reported having Sjögren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which white blood cells attack glands in the eyes, mouth and other secretory places.

Williams has difficulty practicing because of the fatigue and stiffness brought on by the disease. But the tennis star is not alone.

She’s one of 4 million Americans diagnosed with Sjögren's today.

"Experiencing abnormal fatigue, speak with a doctor."

A study led by Manuel Ramos-Casals, researcher in the Department of Autoimmune Diseases at the Universitat de Barcelona, found that more than 95 percent of Sjögren's Syndrome patients, who are often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, suffer dry mouth, eyes and other forms of sicca.

Further, 70-80 percent of patients have abnormal fatigue, leading to difficulties at work, and 50 percent report chronic pain.

Half of diagnosed cases are accompanied by some other autoimmune disease, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Nine out of 10 diagnosed are women.

With the odds against her as the U.S. Open begins Monday, does Venus have it in her to win another title in the upcoming Grand Slam?

"I'm doing a lot better than this time last year,'' Williams told reporters after her semi-final defeat at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati last week. "So much better than a couple of months ago, as well. I am learning to deal with everything a lot better."

After seven months off in 2011, Williams said she said she would panic if she woke up feeling stiff or tired during the first few tournaments she played upon coming back.

But Williams is not giving up. She's adjusting her game to accommodate Sjögren's, has become a raw vegan (like sister Serena), and is listening to her body's needs instead of fighting through the discomfort.

Mary Joe Fernandez, one of the U.S. Olympic tennis team coaches in London, suggests that Williams might become more of a finesse player versus the powerhouse she was when she dominated for years.

"You can't underestimate her," Fernandez said. "What she's been through -- she is strong. She really goes out there thinking she's going to win. This is the hard part for her now, being able to play at a high level all of the time. I think she's getting more familiar with her symptoms and not panicking when she's not playing well. That plays a big role."

Little research has been done on medications that can treat Sjögren's, according to Ramos-Casais's study.

"The limited evidence available for the drugs most often used with Sjögren syndrome makes firm recommendations difficult," Ramos-Casais said in the report.

For now, "systemic therapy should be tailored to the organ affected and the severity," according to the report.

The study examined a collection of English-language articles on Sjögren's Syndrome from Jan. 1986 to Aug. 2011 excluding duplicate publications, case reports, studies with experimental studies, and studies with fewer than 10 patients.

The study was published in the June issue of BMJ and was partially funded by state funds and charitable grants supporting Sjögren's research who do not have any competing interest in the work. The authors do not declare any conflicts of interest. 

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Review Date: 
August 25, 2012