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Venus Williams and Sjogren's syndrome: The autoimmune disorder explained

August 31, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Venus Williams competes during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York. Williams has been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects moisture-producing glands.
Venus Williams competes during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament… (Charles Krupa / Associated…)

Tennis star Venus Williams has withdrawn from the U.S. Open shortly before her second-round match, announcing that she has been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to dry eyes, dry mouth and painful joint problems.

"I am thankful I finally have a diagnosis and am now focused on getting better and returning to the court soon," said Williams, who has spent considerable time off the court for various health issues, from a hip injury to a viral infection. 

Sjogren's (pronounced "show-grins") is caused when white blood cells, the body's natural defenders against foreign invaders, start attacking the body's moisture-producing glands as well. This often leaves the mouth parched and the eyes scratchy, as if full of sand. The disease also causes joint pain and swelling, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In rarer, more extreme forms, Sjogren's can damage nerves and kidneys too. It's often associated with other painful autoimmune disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. 

Dry mouth may not sound like much, but it can have more serious consequences. As Rosie Mestel pointed out in this 2002 article on saliva, spit carries chemicals that protect teeth from cavities.

"Sometimes patients will say they have a lot of cavities because within saliva is an antibacterial chemical, and without that you're more susceptible," said Wesley Mizutani, a rheumatologist on staff at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley.

Nine out of ten patients are women, and most patients develop symptoms after age 40. (Williams is 31.)

The exact trigger of the disease isn't quite clear, Mizutani said.

"That's the million-dollar question," he said. "We don't really know. There's probably a genetic component, certainly, but there's more than that."

Certain antibodies are associated with Sjogren's, but it seems to need a trigger, like a viral or bacterial infection, for the immune system to go awry.

Once set off, the system can't really be fixed -- but certain steps can be taken to mitigate the symptoms for the vast majority of patients. Keeping eyedrops and a bottle of water nearby are two such easy measures. Brushing after every meal and otherwise good dental hygiene are a must.

More extreme measures can also be taken, from anti-malarial to autoimmune suppressant drugs.

But, Mizutani pointed out, it could be worse. "If I had to choose an autoimmune disease to get, Sjogren's would be one of the milder ones."

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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