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As Venus Williams Bows Out of U.S. Open, Little-Known Disease Takes Center Court
Date:9/1/2011

By Margaret Steele
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Venus Williams' surprising withdrawal from the U.S. Open on Wednesday has shifted the spotlight from the tennis star's daunting serve to her diagnosis with a little-known disease known as Sjogren's syndrome.

Williams, 31, said the disease has diminished her energy level and caused joint pain, curtailing her ability to continue in the tournament.

More than 4 million Americans have the chronic autoimmune disease, which also causes dry mouth and dry eyes. Ninety percent of those with the disease are women.

Sjogren's syndrome "targets and destroys over time the exocrine glands responsible for tear production and saliva -- and is characterized by dryness of the mouth and eyes," said Dr. Michael Belmont, an associate professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at NYU Langone Medical Center and medical director for Hospital for Joint Diseases. Less commonly, it can cause severe arthritis involving joint deformity and impaired function, he noted.

The publicity surrounding Williams' announcement is expected to increase awareness of the systemic disease, potentially leading to better diagnostic and treatment options.

"Sjogren's syndrome can occur as a primary disorder or secondary to other autoimmune diseases, principally rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus [lupus]," Belmont said. Multiple organs, including the kidneys, lungs, gastrointestinal system, blood vessels and the central nervous system, can also be involved.

When Sjogren's progresses to a multi-organ disease, treatment becomes complex, said Dr. Victoria Shanmugam, a rheumatologist at Georgetown University Medical Center.

"Treatment for Sjogren's ranges from therapies to alleviate symptoms, such as topical therapies for dry eyes and dry mouth, to drugs that suppress the immune system, including hydroxychloroque, methotrexate and steroids
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