Does your mouth feel chalky? Are you having difficulty swallowing and speaking? Are your eyes itching and burning, feeling like there is sand trapped in them?
While many instinctively may blame environmental factors, aging or side effects of common medications (antidepressants or antihypertensives), it is important to consider the possibility of having the autoimmune disorder Sjogren's Syndrome (SjS).
Named after Swedish ophthalmologist Henrik Sjogren, Sjogren's Syndrome is caused by the body's immune system attacking its moisture-producing glands, leading to dry eyes and mouth due to a reduction of tears and saliva. But this illness can have further implications. Its initial mild symptoms, which are often similar to other conditions, can make diagnosis difficult.
In addition, Sjogren’s Syndrome’s effects are not necessarily limited to the glands that produce tears and saliva; the condition can also lead to damage in such parts of your body as the joints, thyroid, kidneys, liver, lungs, skin and nerves.
Joint pain (i.e., Sjogren’s Arthritis) is one of the most common symptoms of Sjögren's Syndrome. Multiple joints can be painful, usually episodically with periods of joint pain, known as “flares,” followed by periods of little or no joint pain. Tenderness and swelling of the joints, when present, are indicative of the inflammatory arthritis associated with Sjogren’s.
Sjogren’s Syndrome can occur on its own or alongside other autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or systematic lupus erythematosus, the most common type of lupus. The National Institutes of Health differentiates the syndrome into two categories: those with and those without another rheumatic disease. While having either version is not necessarily life-threatening, it can have major effects on your organs.
The exact cause of the disease is unknown, but infections have the potential to set the disease in motion, and some genetic and environmental factors can also play a part, including previous autoimmune diseases, hormonal factors, and exposure to certain viruses. The syndrome predominantly affects women aged 40 to 60, with a female-to-male ratio of 9 to 1. Although diagnosis can occur at any age, it usually develops in middle-aged individuals.
Common symptoms of the condition may include:
- Muscle and joint pain
- Prolonged fever
- Chest pain
- Hair loss
- Sun or light sensitivity
- Mouth sores
Due to the commonality of many of its symptoms, how is one able to determine if they have Sjogren’s Syndrome? It is important to take into account your medical history as well as any persistent symptoms; if they last, seek out a healthcare professional. A physical examination as well as blood tests can help lead to a diagnosis.
While there is no cure for Sjogren’s Syndrome, there are options available to treat and manage it, depending on the severity of your symptoms. Those can include:
Maintaining appropriate moisture by using a humidifier
- Taking medications that stimulate saliva and tear production, as well as anti-inflammatory medicines like hydroxychloroquine, azathioprine or leflunomide
- Proper dental care
- Using artificial tears and/or anti-inflammatory eye drops
If any concerns arise, mild or severe, it is important to consult a rheumatologist. They can formulate a personal plan for you to navigate through the hardships of a disorder that affects between 0.5% to 1% of the population, making it one of the more common autoimmune conditions in the world.