Venus Williams, sister of tennis champion Serena and a seven-time major champion and two-time US Open titlist herself, has played 11 matches on the women’s tour this year. However, as the tennis world focuses its attention to the United States and the US Open in New York, Williams has again had to withdraw from competition due to a somewhat rare autoimmune disorder called Sjogren’s syndrome. An autoimmune disorder means that your immune system mistakenly attacks your body’s own cells and tissues. How did it affect Williams is the question, and what is her tennis future if any?

Although you can develop Sjogren’s syndrome at any age, most people are older than 40 at the time of diagnosis. The condition is much more common in women. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms, which often subside with time. Venus is currently 31 years of age. Nine out of ten Sjogren’s patients are women in fact, and it is estimated to strike as many as 4 million people in the United States alone making it the second most common autoimmune rheumatic disease.

Throughout her 17-year pro career, Williams has consistently refused to talk about injuries or illnesses, adopting the attitude that if she is entered in a tournament, she is healthy enough to play. However, her career may have now come to an end.

Here are treatment options and an explanation of the disease….

Progression of Sjogren’s syndrome is different for everyone. Most people with this disease have chronic dryness of the eyes and mouth that lasts throughout their lives. If your symptoms are not relieved by home treatment and medicines and your disease begins to affect other parts of the body, your doctor may prescribe stronger medicine or recommend surgery.

If extremely dry eyes are not helped by tear substitutes, topical cyclosporine ophthalmic eye drops may provide relief.

If neither tear substitutes nor cyclosporine eye drops ease dry eyes, a doctor may perform a surgical procedure called punctal occlusion, in which he or she places temporary or permanent plugs in your tear ducts (lacrimal ducts) to help keep moisture in your eyes. These plugs keep tears from draining away from the eyes and leaving them dry.

It appears that Venus’ ailments took on a more severe form: chronic joint pain. For joint pain, chronic inflammation in saliva and tear glands, or other serious symptoms, treatment may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

NSAIDs may provide relief from inflammation, but people with Sjogren’s syndrome may be more susceptible to developing gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) after taking NSAIDs, which is also a big problem, especially for a serious athlete.

There are also corticosteroids (such as prednisone), which are used to relieve muscle and joint inflammation but can have serious side effects, including osteoporosis, glaucoma, and diabetes. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), also known as slow-acting antirheumatic drugs (SAARDs) may be prescribed alone or in combination to manage the symptoms of joint and muscle pain and dry skin from Sjogren’s syndrome. DMARDs that may be prescribed include hydroxychloroquine sulfate or methotrexate.

To conclude in a statement, Williams said:

“(It is) an ongoing medical condition that affects my energy level and causes fatigue and joint pain. I enjoyed playing my first match here and wish I could continue but right now I am unable to. I am thankful I finally have a diagnosis and am now focused on getting better and returning to the court soon.”

Written by Sy Kraft