April is Sjögren’s Syndrome awareness month. Have you ever heard of Sjögren’s Syndrome? Most people don’t even know how to pronounce it. An estimated 4 million Americans are thought to have Sjögren’s Syndrome – most of them women – and there is no cure as of April, 2016. It’s pronounced “show-grins” and if you have heard of it before, then you probably associate it with symptoms of dry eyes, dry mouth, fatigue, and joint/muscle pain. Maybe you know that tennis pro Venus Williams has it. Sjögren’s can be hard to define and differentiate from similar connective tissue diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and Lupus.
The fact is that it is very much associated with RA and Lupus. Many people have one of these diagnoses along with Sjögren’s Syndrome, or they may have a mixture of symptoms among several different connective tissue diseases. Healthcare practitioners label this “Mixed Connective Tissue Disease” or sometimes “Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease” to signify that symptoms don’t paint a single, easy diagnosis. That can be very confusing. Let’s take a closer look at Sjögren’s Syndrome and see if we can sort some of this out.
Sjögren’s Syndrome is an autoimmune inflammatory connective tissue disease that is known for attacking the exocrine glands throughout the body. That means that the person’s body is attacking its own joints, muscles, skin, blood vessels, and other organs in addition to all of the exocrine glands. Exocrine glands are moisture producing glands such as the lacrimal glands that secrete tears and salivary glands that secrete salvia. Exocrine glands also secrete sweat and moisture on our skin. They also provide moisture and lubrication for the nose, respiratory tract, and reproductive organs. They reside in several areas all throughout our gastrointestinal tract to help with digestion, secrete enzymes, and aid in the absorption of nutrients. Exocrine glands in the liver and pancreas secrete bile and pancreatic juices. Complications from destruction of these glands can be profound. Those with Sjögren’s also have a 40% higher risk of being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes) than the general population.
People who suffer from Sjögren’s usually appear to be physically healthy on the outside. Historically, diagnosis doesn’t occur in most women until middle age. That is changing, and diagnosis is occurring in those afflicted much younger as awareness about Sjögren’s Syndrome spreads. Sjögren’s has been under-diagnosed or diagnosed years after symptoms start in part because of our western medicine society’s focus on treating body systems separately instead of looking at the body as a whole. Patients have instead ended up with a bunch of different diagnoses such as anemia, arthritis, dry eye syndrome, tooth decay, kidney disease, alopecia (hair loss), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), dry skin & rashes, raynaud’s disease, dry mouth, vasculitis, reflux disease and fibromyalgia, only to later find that it’s all a part of Sjögren’s Syndrome.
I could go on and on about Sjögren’s but the goal here is awareness and not to overwhelm you. You can find more information on the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation website. Please share this post and tell others about Sjögren’s Syndrome.
|Barbara Grubbs, NP
Nurse Practitioner & Health Coach