Everything You Need to Know About Sjögren's Syndrome
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Sjögren's Syndrome 101
What is Sjögren's Syndrome? Sjögren's is an autoimmune disease most commonly known for causing dry mouth & dry eyes but in actuality it's a systemic rheumatic disease that can cause widespread pain and inflammation and occassionally affects the internal organs as well.
There are two forms of Sjögren's Syndrome. Primary Sjögren's Syndrome meaning it's the only autoimmune disease you've been diagnosed with and Secondary Sjögren's Syndrome meaning you've been diagnosed with Sjögren's while already having another rheumatic disease like Systemic Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Who is Affected by Sjögren's Syndrome?
90% of people diagnosed with Sjögren's are women, typically middle aged women, however Sjögren's Syndrome can affect anyone of any age. While men are less likely to be diagnosed, they still make up approximately 10% of all Sjögren's patients. While scientists are not sure why it's primarily women affected by autoimmune disorders, there is believed to be a hormonal component.
Approximately 1% or less of people worldwide live with Sjögren's and it appears to be most common in Native American populations, followed closely by African Americans. Native Americans tend to have less of the classic symptoms while African Americans have higher rates of Lymphoma associated with Sjögren's.
It is believed that anywhere from 400,000 to 3 million people worldwide are living with Sjögren's.
Most Common Sjögren's Syndrome Symptoms
- Dry mouth and/or dry eyes
- Difficulty swallowing
- Severe fatigue
- Dry skin
- Excessive dental cavities
- Swollen salivary glands
- Swollen lymph nodes (swollen glands)
- Vaginal dryness
- Joint pain or stiffness
Diagnosing Sjögren's Syndrome
Rheumatologists are typically responsible for diagnosing and treating Sjögren's Syndrome. While there is no single test for Sjögren's, doctors can often make a diagnosis by looking at the overall picture, examining the results of bloodwork and other tests and taking an oral history of their patients symptoms and health.
Some of the blood work your doctor might order may include:
- Anti-nuclear antibodies (ANA) (Anti-nuclear antibodies can associated with numerous autoimmune diseases and even in a small percentage of the population who do not have any autoimmune diseases)
- Anti-ro (SSA) and Anti-la (SSB) antibodies (these are seen in both Lupus & Sjogren's Syndrome patients)
- Complete Blood Count (CBC)
- Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
- Sedimentation Rate (SED rate)
- C-reactive protein
Your doctor may also order bloodwork to rule out other autoimmune diseases, including:
- Rheumatoid factor (RF factor) - to check for Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Anti-dsDNA (This is to rule out Systemic Lupus)
- TPO antibodies (To test for Hashimoto's Thyroiditis)
Your rheumatologist may also order a lip biopsy which may detect the presence of cells that indicate Sjögren's Disease and/or a Schirmer’s test which determines whether your eyes are producing enough tears.
Managing the Symptoms of Sjögren's
There might not be any cure of Sjögren's but there are things you can do to manage your symptoms. Using lubricating eye drops (aka artificial tears) or an eye lubricant (which comes in both gel and ointment forms) can help manage dry eye symptoms. For dry mouth, symptoms may be managed by chewing sugar-less gum or using a mouth wash meant to induce salivation.
Depending on the severity of your Sjögren's symptoms, your rheumatologist may also prescribe immunosuppressants, anti-inflammatories and/or prednisone (oral steroids).
It can be scary receiving the diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, Sjögren's included, it can be helpful to join in person or online support groups to chat with other people who know what you're going through. The good news is that Sjögren's Syndrome has a normal life expectancy.
Sjögren's Syndrome Comorbidities
What is a comorbidity?
A comorbidity is when a person has two or more long-term chronic illnesses at the same time. Unfortunately as mentioned earlier in this article, Sjögren's is often a secondary autoimmune disease meaning it's often seen alongside other autoimmune diseases including but not limited to Fibromyalgia, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Raynaud's Phenomenon and more.
Sjögren's Syndrome is also associated with a higher risk of certain cancers, especially lymphoma.
Sjögren's Syndrome FAQ's
What causes Sjögren's Syndrome?
It is believed that there is a genetic component meaning that it can be inherited from one or both parents, however there is usually a trigger that activates the disease such as a bacterial or viral infection.
When is Sjögren's Awareness Month?
April is Sjögren's Awareness Month while World Sjögren's Day is celebrated on July 23rd of each year in honor of the birthday of Dr. Henrik Sjögren, the Swedish ophthalmologist who initially discovered Sjögren's Syndrome.