Taking On Sjögren’s

The fall edition of Berkeley’s Optometry Magazine features an article on a multidisciplinary team of doctors at the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science who have initiated an innovative approach to treating a complicated and elusive disease.

Sjögren’s is an autoimmune disorder which, among other things, wreaks havoc on the body’s ability to generate moisture. This is why many patients’ first experience of the disease is keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or dry eyes. People often fight the disease unsuccessfully by themselves for years, changing contact lens solutions or using over-the-counter eye drops. Xerostomia, or dry mouth, is another common early symptom. Simply drinking water throughout the day isn’t effective and the lack of constant salivary flushing provides an ideal environment for cavity-causing bacteria and the periodontal disease, cavities, and soft tissue infections that follow.

Sjögren’s affects more than four million people in the United States, approximately ninety percent of whom are women. Probably the most famous sufferer is tennis star Venus Williams. Williams withdrew from the 2011 US Open because of extreme fatigue. At one point she was the top-ranked player in the world but undiagnosed Sjögren’s caused her to fall so far that she was no longer even in the top one hundred players. Even with access to the world’s best doctors, it took seven years of struggle before Williams was accurately diagnosed. This isn’t unusual, says Dr. Nancy McNamara, Chief of the Sjögren’s Clinic. “Historically, it takes five to seven years for Sjögren’s to get diagnosed, because clinicians often don’t know how to recognize it.”