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Venus Williams out of Australian Open: What is Sjogren's syndrome?

January 10, 2012|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Venus Williams in action at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Williams has been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome.
Venus Williams in action at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Williams has been… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Tennis star Venus Williams has withdrawn from the Australian Open, more than four months after announcing that she has Sjogren's syndrome.

"After several months of training and treatment, I am making steady progress to top competitive form," the 31-year-old wrote on her website Monday. "My diet and fitness regimen have allowed me to make great strides in terms of my health and I am very close to being able to return to WTA competition."

Williams finished, "I have every intention to return to the circuit in February."

Sjogren's (that's "show-grins") syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that overwhelmingly affects women, by a ratio of about 9 to 1, according to Dr. Steven Carsons, head of rheumatology at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, New York. The disease occurs when the body's white blood cells attack its moisture-producing glands, as if they were foreign invaders. 

Williams has not competed since withdrawing before her second-round match at the U.S. Open in August. At the time, according to the Washington Post, she said, "It was just energy-sucking, and I just couldn't play pro tennis."

Symptoms can include dry eyes, dry mouth, painful joints and fatigue. The disease typically begins to affect women in their forties and fifties, said Carsons, who also sits on the Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation national board of directors.

Treatment usually requires a collaboration by the patient's rheumatologist, opthamologist and oral surgeon, and perhaps other medical specialists, he said. Certain medications can reduce inflammation, while others can stimulate the glands to produce moisture.

"Athletes have a tremendous challenge in terms of dealing in particular with the fact that fatigue is a byproduct of [the disease]," Carsons said.

For a professional athlete, a small dip in energy can mean the difference between winning and losing.

In terms of training, coaches and trainers have to be ready to modify workouts if an athlete feels a flare-up coming, Carsons said.

"The first thing is recognition," he stressed. "This is a major issue … a lot of times, these dry eyes and dry mouth symptoms are attributed to other, more trivial conditions, such as allergies or anxiety."

As for whether Venus' sister Serena may be at risk of developing Sjogren's, Carsons said the disease tends not to affect immediate family members, although they may have overall higher risk for other related autoimmune disorders.

For more information on Sjogren’s syndrome, visit the Mayo Clinic's website.

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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