Will Sjogren’s syndrome end Venus Williams’ tennis career?

Venus Williams returns against Vesna Dolonts during the first round of the U.S. Open  on Monday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Venus Williams returns against Vesna Dolonts during the first round of the U.S. Open on Monday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Tennis star Venus Williams dropped out of the US Open yesterday after announcing that she had Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes dry mouth, fatigue and joint pain. “I enjoyed playing my first match here, and wish I could continue but right now I am unable to,” Williams said in a statement released to the media. “I am thankful I finally have a diagnosis and am now focused on getting better and returning to the court soon.”

Williams acknowledged she’d been feeling fatigued for some time, but didn’t know the cause, according to the New York Times. “Looking back, it’s affected my career in a huge way,” Williams said in an interview with the paper today. “I’ve been playing a lot of matches with half a deck.” She added, “It’s mentally destructive going into matches and wondering which balls can I run for and am I going to be able to compete.”

In 2007 Williams was told she had exercise-induced asthma due to symptoms that she now attributes to Sjögren’s. It takes seven years on average to diagnose patients after they develop symptoms, according to the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation

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The seven grand-slam title winner said she hopes to return to her career after adjusting to the medications she’s on, which could take three to six months. While the condition—in which white blood cells attack moisture-producing glands—can’t be cured, it can be managed with medications to relieve dry eyes and dry mouth and with immune-suppressing drugs during severe flares that can affect internal organs like the kidneys and lungs.

Fatigue, overall aches, and low energy levels, however, are tougher to treat, so the likelihood of Williams’ restarting her career remains uncertain.

An estimated four million Americans suffer from Sjögren’s and, like other autoimmune conditions, the vast majority of those diagnosed are women. About half of those with Sjögren’s also have other autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or scleroderma.

Williams hasn’t revealed whether she has Sjögren’s along with one of these other conditions, which could make her comeback even tougher.

The exact cause of Sjögren’s syndrome isn’t known, but the latest research suggests that inherited genetic factors play a role. Having a close relative with Sjögren’s can raise a person’s risk as can having family members with other autoimmune diseases.

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