Sjogren’s Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Janis

By Janis | Updated December 4, 2023

Sjögren’s Syndrome is a chronic autoimmune condition that mainly impacts the moisture-producing glands in the eyes and mouth, leading to decreased saliva and tear production. 

This lifelong condition, named after the Swedish eye doctor Henrik Sjögren, who first described it, can significantly impact the quality of life for those afflicted. 

In addition to dryness, individuals with Sjögren’s Syndrome may experience joint pain, fatigue, and a higher risk of developing other autoimmune conditions or complications.

Diagnosis of Sjögren’s Syndrome involves a combination of tests and assessments, considering both the symptoms and specific diagnostic criteria. Early and accurate diagnosis is vital, as it allows for appropriate treatment and management strategies to be implemented. 

Treatment mainly focuses on managing symptoms, preventing complications, and improving patients’ overall quality of life. 

Although there is currently no cure, various prevention and management techniques can help those with Sjögren’s Syndrome lead more comfortable lives.

Symptoms

Sjogren’s Syndrome is characterized by symptoms that primarily affect moisture-producing glands. Understanding these symptoms is pivotal for early detection and treatment strategies.

Dry Eyes

Dry eyes are one of the most frequent symptoms of Sjogren’s Syndrome, as the disorder impacts the tear-producing glands. 

This can lead to a feeling of burning or itchiness in the eyes, blurry vision, and increased sensitivity to light. The dryness can also make the eyes more prone to infections.

Dry Mouth

Another common symptom of Sjogren’s Syndrome is dry mouth, resulting from diminished saliva production. This can cause difficulties in speaking, chewing, and swallowing. 

A persistently dry mouth may also lead to a higher risk of dental problems, like cavities and gum diseases. Furthermore, some individuals might experience issues like oral infections or mouth sores.

Joint Pain

Joint pain is often reported by those with Sjogren’s Syndrome, typically presenting as arthritis. 

This may result in pain, stiffness, and swelling in the affected joints. In some cases, the discomfort can affect daily activities, mobility, and overall quality of life.

Fatigue

People with Sjogren’s Syndrome often experience fatigue, which can severely impact their daily lives. 

It can manifest as a persistent feeling of exhaustion or weakness, making it difficult to concentrate or perform regular tasks.

Inflammation

Inflammation is a common manifestation of Sjogren’s Syndrome. It may affect various organs and can result in issues like swelling, redness, and sometimes pain.

In some cases, the inflammation might involve the lungs, bowel, and other organs as well.

Skin Rash

While not as common as the previously mentioned symptoms, some Sjogren’s Syndrome patients might experience a skin rash. This can present as patches of red, irritated skin or even small bumps. Itchiness, dryness, or scaling can also accompany these skin changes.

Causes

Sjogren’s Syndrome, while primarily an autoimmune disorder, has causes that are multifaceted and not entirely understood.

Research has highlighted several factors, both genetic and environmental, that contribute to its onset.

Autoimmune Disorder

This is an autoimmune condition where the immune system erroneously attacks the body’s moisture-producing glands, causing inflammation and damage. It results in the glands producing less saliva and tears, leading to symptoms like dry mouth and dry eyes. 

The syndrome can either be primary, developing on its own, or secondary, developing along with other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriatic arthritis.

However, the exact reason why the immune system attacks these glands is still not fully understood by researchers.

Genes

While the exact cause of Sjögren’s Syndrome remains unknown, research suggests that genes may play a role in the development of the disease. 

Certain genetic factors may make some individuals more susceptible to triggers like infections, which can then initiate the autoimmune response.

Age and Gender

Sjögren’s Syndrome tends to be more prevalent among individuals of a certain age, with its onset typically occurring between the ages of 40 and 60. 

However, it can affect people of any age and is more common in women than men.

Diagnosis

To diagnose Sjögren’s Syndrome, doctors usually perform blood tests to check for the presence of specific antibodies associated with the disease. Further tests, such as imaging studies or biopsy of the salivary gland, may also be required to get a more accurate diagnosis.

Blood Tests

A rheumatologist often starts diagnosing Sjogren’s Syndrome with blood tests to detect specific antibodies and inflammation markers. 

For example, they may test for the presence of Anti-SSA and Anti-SSB antibodies, which are commonly associated with the condition. Blood tests can also help rule out other autoimmune disorders with similar symptoms.

Biopsy

A minor salivary gland biopsy from the inner lip is another diagnostic tool in evaluating Sjogren’s Syndrome. 

The doctor will remove a small piece of tissue and examine it under a microscope for evidence of immune cell infiltration. This procedure is relatively simple and minimally invasive and can provide valuable information for a definitive diagnosis.

Imaging Test

Imaging tests, such as a sialogram or salivary scintigraphy, can be useful in assessing the function of salivary glands. 

A sialogram involves injecting a dye into the salivary ducts and capturing X-ray images, while salivary scintigraphy measures the uptake and secretion of a radioactive substance in the salivary glands. 

Both tests can help determine the extent of gland dysfunction in Sjögren’s Syndrome patients.

Schirmer Tear Test

Measuring tear production is essential in diagnosing Sjogren’s Syndrome, as dry eyes are one of the primary symptoms. The Schirmer Tear Test is a simple procedure that involves placing a small strip of paper under the lower eyelid for several minutes to measure the amount of tears produced. 

A lower tear production indicates possible Sjögren’s Syndrome or another cause of dry eyes.

Treatment

Treatment for Sjogren’s Syndrome aims to manage symptoms and improve overall well-being.

Approaches vary based on the severity and specific manifestations of the disease, encompassing both medicinal and non-medicinal strategies.

Medications

A variety of prescription medications can be used to help manage the symptoms of Sjogren’s Syndrome. 

Some common medications include those that help reduce inflammation, medications that help stimulate tear production, medications to suppress the immune system, and low-dose steroids for severe cases.

Artificial Tears and Saliva

Dryness in the eyes and mouth is common in Sjogren’s Syndrome, which can be relieved through the use of artificial tears and artificial saliva.

These over-the-counter products help provide moisture and reduce irritation in the affected areas.

Punctal Occlusion

In some cases, a procedure called punctal occlusion can be performed to preserve the natural moisture in the eyes. 

This involves the temporary or permanent closure of the tear ducts, preventing the tear fluid from draining away too quickly and thus helping maintain adequate moisture levels.

Lifestyle Changes

Several lifestyle changes can help alleviate symptoms of Sjogren’s Syndrome and improve overall quality of life.

Hydration

Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help maintain overall moisture levels in the body and relieve symptoms of dryness.

Patients are advised to avoid beverages that may exacerbate dehydration.

Diet 

Eating a balanced diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants can support overall health and help reduce inflammation.

Avoiding spicy or acidic foods can help prevent mouth and throat irritation.

Moisturizers 

Regular use of moisturizers, particularly on areas with dry skin, can help reduce irritation and maintain skin health.

Opting for fragrance-free and hypoallergenic creams or lotions can prevent further irritation, offering relief to affected areas.

Eye care 

Eye care is essential for individuals with Sjogren’s Syndrome due to the prevalent dry eye symptoms. Consistent lubrication can mitigate discomfort.

Using preservative-free eye drops or ointments and wearing sunglasses to protect the eyes from wind and sunlight can help alleviate eye irritation.

Prevention

Although there is no definitive way to prevent Sjogren’s Syndrome, there are steps you can take to manage the triggers and reduce the risk of developing complications. 

By following a healthy lifestyle and taking proper care of your body, you can help prevent Sjogren’s Syndrome or manage its symptoms more effectively if you’re already diagnosed.

Rest, Diet and Lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle, which includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep, can help support your immune system. 

Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are important for overall health.

Stress Management

Stress management can play a significant role in preventing the onset of Sjogren’s Syndrome. Since stress is known to trigger autoimmune disorders, finding ways to manage it effectively can contribute to lowering the risk. 

Consider incorporating stress-reducing activities such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises into your daily routine.

Oral and Eye Hygiene

Another preventive measure is to maintain proper oral and eye hygiene. Regular dental check-ups, brushing your teeth at least twice a day, and flossing can help prevent oral complications associated with Sjogren’s Syndrome. 

To keep your eyes moist and prevent dryness, use artificial tears or over-the-counter lubricating eye drops.

Early Diagnosis

If you have a family history of autoimmune disorders or are experiencing symptoms that might indicate Sjogren’s Syndrome, consult a healthcare professional for early diagnosis and treatment. 

Early intervention can help minimize symptoms and improve overall quality of life.

Complications

Sjogren’s Syndrome can bring about various complications, including organ involvement, increased risk of infection, and challenges in maintaining oral health. 

Organ Involvement

Sjogren’s Syndrome can affect various organs in the body, including the kidneys, and the liver. 

Although not common, it may cause inflammation and scarring in the lungs, leading to shortness of breath and chronic cough. 

Infections

Due to the decreased production of saliva and tears, individuals with Sjogren’s Syndrome may be more susceptible to infections. Reduced tear production can lead to dryness in the cornea, increasing the risk of eye infections. 

Additionally, a decrease in saliva can result in a higher risk of oral infections and difficulties swallowing.

Cavities and Oral Health

Dry mouth caused by Sjogren’s Syndrome can lead to an increased risk of cavities and other oral health problems. Saliva plays a significant role in maintaining oral hygiene as it washes away food particles and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria. 

Therefore, the reduction in saliva production can make maintaining good oral hygiene more challenging.

Lymphoma

People with Sjogren’s Syndrome have an increased risk of developing lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The exact cause of this increased risk is not entirely clear, but it may be due to the ongoing inflammation and dysfunction of the immune system. 

Regular check-ups and monitoring of symptoms can help in early detection and treatment of lymphoma.

Living with Sjögren’s Syndrome

Living with Sjögren’s Syndrome requires adjustments to daily routines to manage its chronic symptoms.

Emotional Support

Living with Sjögren’s syndrome can be challenging due to its chronic nature and the wide range of symptoms it can cause, such as muscle pain, skin rash, and dry cough. It is essential to build a strong emotional support system of friends and family.

Joining an online community or seeking counseling can also be helpful in coping with the emotional aspects of the condition.

Managing Symptoms at Work

Managing Sjögren’s syndrome symptoms while at work can be crucial for maintaining productivity and quality of life. Here are some suggestions to help you manage and minimize the effects of symptoms during work:

Adequate Hydration

Maintaining hydration is crucial, especially during work hours. Regular water intake can combat dryness and boost concentration.

Carrying a water bottle and setting reminders to drink can ensure consistent hydration throughout the workday.

Artificial Tears

Using artificial tears can provide relief, especially during extended screen time at work.

Keeping a bottle of artificial tears on hand and using them periodically can help maintain eye comfort and reduce fatigue.

Alleviation Strategies

Take frequent breaks to rest your eyes, stretch, or do relaxation exercises if you are experiencing muscle pain.

Speak to your supervisor about your condition and discuss potential workplace accommodations.

Maintaining Oral Health

Sjögren’s syndrome can cause oral health issues like cavities, taste changes, and difficulty swallowing due to dry mouth. 

Maintaining good oral health is essential to minimize complications. Regular dental check-ups, use of fluoride toothpaste, adequate hydration, and taking sugar-free gum and candies are some strategies to promote oral hygiene, prevent cavities, and stimulate saliva production.

Monitoring for Other Symptoms

Additionally, be vigilant about monitoring other symptoms like vision problems, swollen lymph nodes, or numbness. Seek help from an ophthalmologist if you experience persistent dryness or eye discomfort. 

If you have a persistent dry cough, it could indicate pneumonia or bronchitis; consulting a healthcare professional is necessary in such cases. 

Lastly, be aware that Sjögren’s syndrome might cause a higher risk of certain types of cancer, so regular check-ups and screenings are essential for early detection and prevention.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common symptoms of Sjogren’s Syndrome?

Sjogren’s Syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease that primarily affects moisture-producing glands. Dry eyes and mouth are considered the most common symptoms. 

Some patients may also experience joint pain, fatigue, and swollen salivary glands. In more severe cases, the disease can affect other organs, such as the lungs, kidneys, and nerves.

How is Sjogren’s Syndrome diagnosed?

Diagnosing Sjogren’s Syndrome can be challenging, as its symptoms can mimic those caused by other diseases or medications. Doctors usually rely on a combination of medical history, physical examination, and specific diagnostic tests. 

These tests may include blood tests to check for specific antibodies, eye tests to evaluate dryness, and lip biopsies to examine salivary gland tissue.

Are there effective treatments for Sjogren’s Syndrome?

Various treatment options are utilized to help manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients. Currently, there is no definite cure for Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Treatments may include artificial tears and saliva substitutes, medications to reduce inflammation and control the immune system, and lifestyle changes to improve overall health. 

How can Sjogren’s Syndrome be prevented?

As the exact cause of Sjogren’s Syndrome is not yet known, there are no definitive measures to prevent the disease. 

However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, receiving regular medical check-ups, and promptly addressing any concerning symptoms can help ensure early detection and treatment, which may lessen the severity of physical complications.