Venus Williams announced her withdrawal from the 2011 U.S. Open tournament on Wednesday after being diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome. The rare autoimmune disease (pronounced SHOW-grins) that forced tennis star and seven-time Grand Slam champion out causes debilitating joint pain, swelling, numbness and fatigue.
Up to four million Americans are living with this chronic condition.
"I think I've had issues with Sjogren's for a while. It just wasn't diagnosed," Williams said. "I just didn't have any energy," Williams said. "And it's not that you don't have energy; you just feel beat up. The good news for me is now I know what's happening," Williams said, adding that her doctor diagnosed her with exercise-induced asthma four years ago. But it wasn't until this summer, when she developed more definite symptoms, that an accurate diagnosis was made.
Deciding to drop out of the U.S. Open wasn't easy, Williams said.
"… I just felt like, 'Okay, I could walk out on the court. I'm a tough woman, I'm a tough athlete, I've played through a lot of things.' But what kind of match it would be?" she said. "It was a tough decision, but at the same time I've had to come to accept what I'm going through."
Williams said she's glad to finally have an explanation for her mysterious, debilitating symptoms.
"It's a huge relief because as an athlete everything is physical for me -- everything is being fit and being in shape," she said. "I think the best thing that could have happened for me this summer was to feel worse so I could feel better. Sjogren's is something you live with your whole life. I feel like I can get better and move on."
Williams said she "absolutely" plans to return to tennis.
Williams' sister and fellow tennis pro Serena had a health scare in March, when she was diagnosed with pulmonary embolism -- a blood clot in her lungs.
"Serena's conditions helped me to feel a new life on life in itself," Williams said. "So this, right now, I think will help me to feel grateful for everything that I have. And at the same time it makes me want to get up and fight harder every single day."
Sjogren's Disease: What You Need To Know
What is it? Sjogren's Disease is a condition in which the body's immune system attack it's own healthy tissues, particularly the body’s moisture-producing glands. It is one of the most prevalent autoimmune diseases and often strikes at the same time as other autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Williams said she has struggled for years with symptoms that she now knows are linked to the condition.
What causes it? The cause of this autoimmune disorder isn’t yet known, but certain genes raise the risk. In people who are genetically susceptible, some sort of triggering event may spark the disease, such as a bacterial or viral infection.
What are the symptoms? Sjogren's is usually triggered by an infection. The symptoms vary, but usually include dry eyes and a dry, cottony mouth that makes it hard to swallow. Other symptoms include joint pain, swelling or stiffness, swollen salivary glands (particularly the ones behind the jaw and in front of the ears), dry nose or nosebleeds, heartburn, trouble concentrating or remembering, remembering, tooth decay, abnormal liver function, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, extreme fatigue, skin rashes, vaginal dryness, or persistent bronchitis.
Who is most affected? 9 out of 10 people with this chronic autoimmune disease are women. The syndrome is most common after age 40, but can strike people of any age, including kids.
How is it diagnosed and treated? Sjogren's syndrome is often misdiagnosed or overlooked because it can mimic other conditions. Many patients, like Williams, have symptoms for several years before getting a diagnosis. There’s no one test for the syndrome, but an international panel of experts developed diagnostic criteria that include evaluating dryness symptoms, such as checking the eyes’ level of tear production and how much saliva the mouth produces. There are also several blood tests that doctors may use.
While Sjogren's has no cure, there are treatments that make symptoms more manageable: Artificial tears and saliva stimulants can ease dryness; anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce joint and muscle inflammation; and certain drugs can help control the overactive immune response.
If you are experiencing symptoms of the disease, including unexplained numbness, fatigue or swelling, be sure to contact a doctor immediately.
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