Sjörgren’s Syndrome: How to Manage It Properly?

In 2013, after going through several specialists who were unsure of my condition, I was officially diagnosed with lupus and Sjörgren’s syndrome. While I’d heard of lupus, I had no idea what Sjörgren’s syndrome was and how that coincided with my lupus diagnosis. Almost ten years later, I have a better idea of this disease and how to manage it properly.

Key takeaways:
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    Sjörgren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that often accompanies another chronic health disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
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    Common symptoms of Sjörgren’s syndrome are dry eyes, dry mouth, and joint pain.
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    While there isn’t a cure for Sjörgren’s syndrome, several treatment options are available to manage symptoms.

If you were like me nine years ago and are unaware of this health condition, continue reading to learn more about Sjörgren’s syndrome.

What’s Sjörgren’s syndrome?

Pronounced “SHOW-grins,” Sjörgren’s syndrome is a health condition that affects the immune system. The condition accompanies other immune system disorders such as systematic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac diseases, and sarcoidosis. Typically, Sjörgren’s syndrome is diagnosed in patients 40 and older but can develop at any age. In my case, I got diagnosed with the condition at age 17. In addition, immune system disorder is commonly diagnosed in more women than men.

Symptoms of Sjörgren’s syndrome

People with Sjörgren’s syndrome can expect minor symptoms associated with the health condition. However, in some instances, some patients may experience additional, more severe symptoms that arise from Sjörgren’s syndrome.

The symptoms of Sjörgren’s syndrome are:

  • Dry eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry skin
  • Extended periods of fatigue
  • Pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints and muscles
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Skin rashes
  • Vaginal dryness

The two most common symptoms of Sjörgren’s syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth. Dry eyes occur due to a lack of adequate lubrication in the eyes. As a result, the eyes cannot produce enough tears to stay wet.

People with dry eyes can experience:

  • Burning
  • Itching
  • The feeling that something’s in their eye
  • Light sensitivity
  • Red eyes
  • Blurry vision

A dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, occurs when there’s insufficient saliva to keep the mouth wet. The condition can make talking, chewing, and swallowing a challenge. In addition, if left untreated, it can lead to fungal infections or tooth decay.

Symptoms of a dry mouth are:

  • A dry or sticky sensation in the mouth
  • Difficulties with chewing, swallowing, or talking
  • A burning sensation in the mouth
  • Cracked or chapped lips
  • Dry and rough tongue
  • Mouth and tongue sores
  • Mouth infection
  • Gingivitis (bad breath)

Causes of Sjörgren’s syndrome

In some instances, genetics may play a part in the development of the disease. However, Sjörgren’s syndrome often arises when it’s “triggered” by another disease or infection. In addition, the female hormone estrogen may cause the condition, given that women are more affected than men.

Since Sjörgren’s syndrome is an autoimmune health condition, it unintentionally causes the immune system to attack healthy cells and tissues in the body. The disease targets the tear and saliva glands and then travels to other body parts.

The immune system can attack several areas of the body, such as:

  • Joints
  • Kidneys
  • Liver
  • Lungs
  • Nerves
  • Skin
  • Thyroid

Complications

As mentioned before, the most common symptoms arising from Sjörgren’s syndrome are dry eyes and mouth. However, there are additional health problems that can occur from the autoimmune disease.

Other complications from Sjörgren’s syndrome are:

Vision problems: Blurry vision, sensitivity to light, and corneal damage.

Dental cavities: Without enough saliva production, the teeth are subjected to bacteria that can lead to cavities.

Yeast infections: Oral thrush, a yeast infection that develops in the mouth, can occur due to Sjörgren’s syndrome.

Inflammation to the lungs, kidneys, or liver can lead to pneumonia, kidney damage, or cirrhosis.

Lymphoma: Cancer of the lymph nodes.

Peripheral neuropathy: Numbness, tingling, and burning in the hands and feet.

Diagnosis

Because Sjörgren’s syndrome shares many similarities with other diseases and can vary with each patient, the autoimmune disease can be challenging for healthcare professionals to diagnose. In addition, many of the symptoms associated with certain medications imitate those that occur from Sjörgren’s syndrome. Fortunately, there is testing available to help correctly diagnose the condition.

To get a diagnosis of Sjörgren’s syndrome, a doctor may do the following:

  • Look for common Sjörgren’s syndrome antibodies.
  • Search for the presence of inflammatory health conditions.
  • Examine any problems in your kidneys or livers.
  • Take a look at your blood cell levels.

An ophthalmologist may examine a patient’s eyes for dry eye symptoms with a Schirmer tear test (measures tear production) and explore the eyes with a slit lamp. In addition, imaging tests like a sialogram or salivary scintigraphy may be requested to examine saliva production for possible dry mouth complications. Other testing measures for Sjörgren’s syndrome may include urine tests, biopsies, ocular surface stainings, and physical exams.

Treatment

Once a patient receives a Sjörgren’s syndrome diagnosis, they may begin receiving treatment. While there isn’t a cure for this health condition, there are ways to manage the symptoms. A healthcare team will come together to find the right treatment plan for patients with Sjörgren’s syndrome.

Some potential treatment options for Sjögren’s syndrome are:

  • Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil)
  • Eye drops (for dry eyes)
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (for joint pain)