Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that affects about 1 in 500 people, mostly middle-aged women, who make up about 90% of those affected. The most common symptoms are excessively dry eyes and mouth due to lower tear and saliva production, although other symptoms occur in varying degrees. These can include arthritis, pain in the muscles and nerves, low thyroid function or a swollen thyroid gland, and increased pain or swelling in the lymph nodes. Those affected may also suffer from fatigue and sleep deprivation.
Although Sjogren's syndrome can present alone (primary), it may also be secondary, linked to other autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Though perhaps caused by several genes, it does not tend to be passed easily from one generation to the next. Other researchers have suggested it is not inherited, but may be brought on after exposure to certain viruses. More research is necessary to confirm the cause.
In autoimmune disorders, the body fails to recognize normal body functions and chemical productions. In Sjogren's, the body's white cells attack and fight the natural processes of tear and saliva production. Dry eyes may result in redness, burning, and itching. Dry mouth can increase dental cavities, create very sore throats, and, in more severe cases, can cause difficulty in speaking or in swallowing. Sense of taste may also be reduced.
A diagnosis is often made when secondary Sjogren's is detected. Patients with known autoimmune disorders who present with dry eyes and dry mouth often do not need much additional testing. Medical professionals also screen for patients who use certain medications like tricyclic antidepressants, since these can cause similar effects.
For primary Sjogren's syndrome, an ophthalmologist can examine the eyes and measure the production of tears. In some cases, a biopsy of the inner lip is performed, which can show damage to the salivary glands. Most patients with suspected cases also have blood tests to look for certain chemicals in the blood that cause autoimmune disorders.
As with most autoimmune disorders, this condition has no cure, but there are treatments that can help allay the effects. For dry eyes, the most common method of treatment is artificial tear eye drops. Particular care should be taken to use these in dry air environments, such as on airplanes or in offices that use air conditioning. When artificial tears do not sufficiently address the problem, surgery is occasionally attempted to slow the destruction of the tear-producing glands.
Good oral hygiene is essential. Regular dental cleanings are a must, and toothpastes should contain low levels of peroxide. Reducing intake of liquids that deplete the body of moisture, such as sodas with caffeine or coffee, can also help. In addition, the use of medications that cause dry mouth may need to be evaluated for risk versus benefits.
When other painful symptoms present, anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium may be prescribed to alleviate pain. If the disease is seriously affecting the organs of the body, healthcare professionals may prescribe steroids to decrease both pain and possible infection. Sjogren's syndrome patients are also observed for lymphatic cancer, as it tends to occur in about 5% of those affected.
In addition to medications to treat symptoms, patients are generally advised to follow a program of gentle exercise, which can help reduce fatigue and also combat some of the pain associated with swelling in the muscles and joints. Without additional complications like lymphatic cancer, Sjogren's does not affect life expectancy. With appropriate management, many with this disorder do not suffer a reduced quality of life.