By Adrienne Dellwo
Tennis star Venus Williams went public in 2014 about an illness that has given her trouble for years—Sjogren’s syndrome. (Pronounced SHOW-grins.) We have anecdotal evidence that this disease is common in those of us with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
By itself, Sjogren’s is enough to derail even an otherwise-healthy competitive athlete. Williams had to withdraw from a recent tournament because she was too fatigued to lift her arm. She told the New York Times, “The fatigue is hard to explain unless you have it . . . . And the more I tried to push through it, the tougher it got.” That’s something I know most of us can relate to.
If you add Sjogren’s to conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, you’ve got a recipe for extreme debilitation. For us to feel better and gain back function, we need to make sure all of our illnesses are properly diagnosed and treated. This can be hard, since we can have a host of similar illnesses that are all hard to diagnose. The key is to pay close attention to your symptoms and talk to your doctor about anything new.
What is Sjogren’s Syndrome?
Sjogren’s, also called sicca syndrome, is an autoimmune disease. That means your immune system is incorrectly identifying your own tissues as dangerous and setting out to destroy them.
In the case of Sjogren’s, the tissues under attack are glands that produce moisture. The primary symptoms are dry eyes and mouth. In addition, other areas, such as the vagina and the skin, can be abnormally dry.This dryness isn’t just uncomfortable; it can be a real health hazard. A chronically dry mouth can lead to oral infections, tooth decay, mouth pain and difficulty swallowing. Chronically dry eyes can develop ulcers.
Sjogren’s can also cause persistent fatigue and inflammation in your joints, muscles, nerves, organs or other parts of the body. The inflammation can be quite painful.
When Sjogren’s overlaps with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, it can be hard to spot because some of the symptoms are similar. The important thing for you is to pay attention to any unusual or chronic dryness you may experience and ask your doctor about a it.
Sjogren’s syndrome is a difficult thing to diagnose, so expect an array of diagnostic efforts including:
- An examination of your mouth and eyes,
- Blood tests,
- And possibly a biopsy of your salivary gland.
Treating Sjogren’s Syndrome
Sjogren’s is treated differently depending on the specific body parts that are affected and how severe it is.
Many treatments are aimed at relieving the symptoms. For example, dry eyes may be treated with artificial tears. Pain and inflammation are often treated with non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). More severe inflammation may warrant treatment with corticosteroid medications.
Your doctor may also prescribe drugs that suppress or alter the function of your immune system.
Sjogren’s in Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
So far, we don’t have any research on why Sjogren’s is common in these illnesses. It’s possible that they have some of the same underlying mechanisms. Sjogren’s is autoimmune, and some research suggests that chronic fatigue syndrome may be autoimmune as well.
The thing to remember is that Sjogren’s must be treated differently than fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, and if it’s left untreated, it could exacerbate your other illness(es) as well as making your life more difficult. Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms of Sjogren’s and suspect you may have it.