Sjogren's syndrome is more than just dry eyes. This chronic autoimmune condition characterized by dysfunctional moisture-producing glands can also damage organs.
A relatively common condition that’s frequently misdiagnosed, Sjogren's syndrome can occur by itself but often strikes patients with other autoimmune disorders, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). If you’re diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, a physician specializing in rheumatology is best equipped to help manage it.
At Rheumatology and Allergy Institute of Connecticut in Manchester, rheumatologist Barbara Kage, MD, and our rheumatology physician assistant Donna Duffy, PA-C, provide exceptional care to patients with a full range of rheumatic conditions. Here, we dive into some facts about Sjogren’s, including some encouraging news about how you can live well with this lifelong condition.
What is Sjogren’s syndrome?
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise, and scientists aren’t yet sure why. Sjogren’s syndrome is a type of autoimmune condition that primarily affects your eyes and salivary glands. It occurs when your immune system, which normally protects against outside invaders, turns against healthy tissues.
In Sjogren’s syndrome, your immune system attacks the moisture-producing glands of your eyes and mouth as well as other body areas. It’s most common in adults age 40 and over, and it affects women much more than men.
Sjogren’s syndrome is divided into two categories:
- Primary Sjogren’s: no other rheumatic diseases are present
- Secondary Sjogren’s: occurs with other rheumatic diseases
Secondary Sjogren’s often presents with milder symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome
The following are some characteristics of Sjogren’s to look out for. Talk to Dr. Kage if you notice any of these symptoms.
Eye symptoms are the most common. Your eyes may feel dry or irritated, burn, or itch. Many patients with Sjogren’s find that their eyes are sensitive to bright light. Additionally, your eyes may become tired quickly. If you wear contact lenses, you may find them less comfortable to wear over time. Some patients have mucus in their eyes, particularly in the morning.
Dry eyes, if left untreated, can harm the epithelial cells that protect your cornea — the transparent tissue at the front of your eye. This can increase your cornea's susceptibility to damage from foreign particles and infections.
Because your immune system attacks moisture-producing glands in your mouth, individuals with Sjogren's syndrome may produce insufficient saliva. This can cause problems with chewing or swallowing.
People with Sjogren's may also experience tooth decay or recurring yeast infections in the mouth (thrush). Your salivary glands may become swollen and hard, affecting taste.
Women make up the majority of individuals with Sjogren's syndrome. Because it affects the body's mucous membranes, vaginal dryness is common.
Other symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome include joint pain, muscle aches, and exhaustion. Some people with Sjogren’s also have fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic pain in muscles throughout the body.
In some cases, Sjogren's syndrome causes inflammation of your brain and nerves, kidney, liver, lungs, and esophagus. People with Sjogren's syndrome also have an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a malignancy of the lymph nodes.
Managing Sjogren’s syndrome
The encouraging news is that with proper care, most patients with Sjogren’s syndrome lead a good quality of life. Living with Sjogren’s isn’t without its challenges, but learning everything you can about your condition and forming a strong partnership with your doctor provides a good foundation.
An effective Sjorgen’s management plan starts with a visit to a rheumatology specialist. Artificial tears and gels treat dry eyes and improve comfort. Prescription medications are available to reduce eye inflammation and increase saliva production.
Other treatments depend on your specific symptoms. For example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and low-dose steroids help manage joint pain.
Identifying and minimizing stressors is another important aspect of living well with Sjogren’s. Chronic stress can trigger flare-ups.
Having a good support system can make a tremendous difference when living with a chronic illness. Joining a local or online Sjogren’s support group is a great way to meet others who can relate.
Leading an overall healthy lifestyle is a vital part of living well with Sjogren’s. This includes getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, being physically active, and staying on top of your health.
We can help you manage Sjogren’s syndrome
Sjogren’s syndrome doesn’t have to stop you from living your life to the fullest. The Rheumatology and Allergy Institute of Connecticut team can help you navigate life with Sjogren’s.
To schedule a consultation with Dr. Kage, call our Manchester, Connecticut, office and speak with a member of our team. You also can request an appointment online through this website.