• September 8, 2011
  • Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

Recently, Venus Williams dropped out of the US Open due to feeling fatigued, with swollen joints, dry and numb mouth. We all watched her heroic efforts to stay on court, but knowing now what she was battling during her game, makes her look truly amazing! Venus was diagnosed with a condition called Sjögren syndrome.

What is Sjögren syndrome?

Sjögren syndrome (SS) is an autoimmune disease (where one’s immune system attacks one’s own tissues) of glands which produce saliva, tears and sweat. It particularly affects the salivary and tear glands. It is a relatively common condition, surpassing rheumatoid arthritis in its’ prevalence and often accompanies rheumatoid arthritis as a secondary condition. SS manifests itself as dry mouth, dry eyes and frequent eye infections and may also present as dry skin. It can cause a swelling of the large salivary glands and painful infections of the parotid glands (salivary glands just in front of the ears). SS destroys the salivary glands, therefore reducing saliva to dangerous minimal levels. Not only does this feel uncomfortable for the sufferer, but also may put them at a very high risk of oral infections, gum disease and tooth decay. 

When protective benefits of saliva and its’ natural antibacterial properties are removed, things we usually take for granted become nearly impossible. Speech, chewing and enjoying food, swallowing are all very uncomfortable. The mouth can often feel like it is “burning”. Normal fungal species which usually live in our mouths in small numbers can then overgrow, causing bad breath (halitosis). The bacteria causing gum disease and tooth decay also overgrow. In the case of Venus, she would have been trying hard to rehydrate and keep up her energy with sweet (and acidic) electrolyte drinks and supplements, which would have made her mouth a perfect environment for rampant tooth decay and erosion.

What can be done to treat SS?

As of yet, there is no effective cure for SS. However, new breakthroughs in the field of autoimmune disease treatment (like arthritis) may help discover a cure for this condition. In the meantime, sufferers are encouraged to use xylitol containing saliva replacement sprays or dry mouth gels (such as GC Dry Mouth Gel®) to relieve symptoms of dry mouth and protect from bacterial overgrowth. They also need the extra protection from tooth decay, so higher fluoride toothpaste (such as Neutrafluor 5000ppm®), calcium supplements (such as GC Toothmousse®) and intermittent antibacterial (chlorhexidine) mouthwash (such as Curasept®). 
Lastly, all sufferers of SS and other autoimmune disorders must ensure that they visit their dentist and hygienist regularly and have a custom-designed, sustainable preventative care plan in place! 
Venus Williams is an amazing athlete and an amazing woman and we are impressed at her efforts to continue playing while battling SS. We wish her all the best for her future! 

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh
About The Author

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

Catherine-Anne is a New Zealand-qualified dentist. She holds a Masters Degree in Public Health from Sydney University and she has a broad range of experiences from working in both the public and private sector.

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