According to the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation (SSF), Sjögren’s is a systemic autoimmune disease that impacts the entire body, including the eyes, mouth, joints, nerves and major organs. In honor of World Sjögren’s Day, read on to learn 10 facts about this chronic autoimmune condition.
1. It is more common than you think
The SSF estimates that there are as many as 4 million Americans living with the disease, and it’s the second most common autoimmune condition. The exact prevalence of the condition is difficult to determine, however, since the symptoms tend to mimic those of other conditions, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It can even be confused with menopause, allergies, and drug side effects.
2. It mostly affects women
The SSF states that nine out of 10 Sjögren’s patients are women, and the average age of diagnosis is the late 40s. However, the disease can impact anyone of any age, including men and children as well.
3. It causes extensive dryness
Sjögren’s Syndrome develops as a result of the body’s immune system attacking and destroying the body’s exocrine, or moisture-producing, glands. As a consequence, patients experience widespread dryness throughout their body, but especially impacting their eyes, nose, mouth, skin, vagina and joints.
4. It affects the eyes
The disease is often first detected as a result of eye-related symptoms. This includes dry, gritty eyes that feel like sandpaper when blinking and swollen tear glands. Dry eyes can in turn lead to blurred vision, infections, corneal ulcerations and blepharitis. Several of the eye tests that can be used to help diagnose the condition include a Schirmer test, to measure tear production, and a Rose Bengal and Lissamine Green test, to examine dry spots on the eye’s surface.
5. It affects the mouth, throat and nose
Sjögren’s also affects one’s mouth, throat and nasal cavity; the main symptom being dryness. This, in turn, leads to a whole host of other symptoms, such as mouth sores, dental decay, oral thrush (a yeast infection of the mouth), recurrent sinusitis, nose bleeds, heartburn, reflux esophagitis, and difficulty speaking and swallowing. Some physicians administer a lip gland biopsy as a part of the diagnosis process.
6. It impacts one’s joints too
As the immune system destroys the body’s moisture-producing glands, this results in a decrease in synovial fluid, which helps to keep the joints lubricated. This causes inflammatory joint pain and musculoskeletal pain, and can even lead to the development of rheumatoid arthritis, as shown through a positive Rheumatoid Factor (RF) reading in the blood. In fact, the main physicians who treat Sjögren’s are rheumatologists.
7. Neurological problems are also common
Sjögren’s causes a variety of nervous system symptoms, including nerve pain and peripheral neuropathy (a numbness and tingling in the extremities). Other neurological problems include difficulty concentrating and memory loss, often referred to as “brain fog”.
8. The prognosis of the disease varies
Patients may find that their symptoms plateau, worsen, or, uncommonly, go into remission. A French research study published in Rheumatology also found that early onset primary Sjögren’s Syndrome carried a worse prognosis over the course of the disease (‘early onset’ is defined as a diagnosis before age 35). While some Sjögren’s patients experience mild discomfort, others suffer debilitating symptoms that greatly impair their quality of life.
9. It can increase one’s risk of cancer
A German study found that Sjögren’s Syndrome moderately increases one’s risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL). NHL is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which includes the lymph nodes, spleen, and other tissues. The lifetime risk of developing NHL by age 80 is 8% among men and 5.4% among women with Sjögren’s. This is compared to a risk of 1.6% of men and 1.1% of women in the general population.
10. There is hope
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Sjögren’s, check out the SSF’s video series, Conquering Sjögren’s, and their patient-published Self-Help Booklet. The foundation’s website, www.sjogrens.org, also contains a wealth of resources on the disease, including information about treatment options, survival tips, fact sheets, and even template letters for your health insurance company. You can also check out their extensive network of support groups.
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