Dry Eyes, Dry Mouth: Sjogren's Syndrome

By Ruth Werner, LMP, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

Dry Eyes, Dry Mouth: Sjogren's Syndrome

By Ruth Werner, LMP, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

Dear Readers,

My February article, "Bariatric Surgery," about working with clients who have had various forms of bariatric surgery really seemed to hit a cord. Here are some of your responses:

"I read with interest your article on bariatric surgery. I especially am thankful that you mentioned colon massages. I learned abdominal massage in massage school and improved on it by working with other massage therapists to get greater sensitivity in that area. Now I can feel the colon and surrounding tissue, the peristalsis and what's going on in the rest of the abdomen, as well as helping clients to be more knowledgeable about their own bodies. I understand that there are massage therapists who would rather not address this area, don't have time to do so, or don't feel that they know enough. I would suggest then, to just practice with your colleagues and get the colon massages for yourself. You never know when you may be of assistance to a client with a chronic backache, who really only has a colon ache."

Syracuse, N.Y.

"I started receiving weekly massage therapy shortly after my surgery and continued through the summer of 2008. I found it invaluable to assist me in keeping in touch with my changing body. My massage therapist did Swedish, deep tissue, and stretching. We would also talk about my experience of losing weight and having the band in my body. He was a real support to me through this process. Bottom-line: Massage can be very helpful to someone going through this process."

Roger Bartman, LMT
Leesburg, Va.

For this article, I am answering the request of a reader (Hi Karen in Virginia!), whose client has a relatively common autoimmune disorder called Sjogren's syndrome. Sjogren's syndrome is usually manageable, but in rare cases it can be a serious and potentially threatening condition.

Sjogren's Syndrome: What is it?

Sjogren's syndrome, named for Swedish doctor Henrik Sjogren who first identified this pattern in the early 20th century, is an inflammatory condition that usually affects the eyes and mouth, but can have impact on many tissues throughout the body. Most experts agree that Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disorder with a strong genetic component. In this situation lymphocytes invade and rogue antibodies attack two major sets of glands: the lacrimal glands that produce tears, and the salivary glands. In some cases, antibodies may attack other tissues as well--especially in joints and blood vessels--but this is relatively rare.

Sjogren's syndrome has some features in common with other autoimmune diseases. While some people experience this as a chronic, low-grade, slowly progressive condition, others find that it runs in a cycle of extreme and severe flares followed by periods of remission. Like most other autoimmune conditions, Sjogren's syndrome is more common in women than in men by a ratio of about 9-to-1. It usually affects women between 45 and 55 years of age, but it has been documented in patients both older and younger. Statistics on its incidence in the United States vary; it may affect anywhere from 400,000 to 3 million people. Sjogren's syndrome often appears with other autoimmune disorders: about half of those with Sjogren's syndrome may also be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, or lupus.

Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

Signs and symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome revolve around inflammation of tear and salivary ducts, leading to a decrease in important secretions. Without adequate lubrication the eye can feel gritty and painful, it can become vulnerable to bacterial or viral infection, and the cornea can be permanently damaged.

Inadequate production of saliva makes it difficult to swallow, especially dry food. Teeth become vulnerable to cavities and infection, the tongue may develop fissures, and the mouth is generally more vulnerable to a fungal infection called thrush.

Some people experience similar drying effects in other areas, notably the nasal sinuses, vaginal canal, and the skin in general. While nosebleeds and dry skin are irritating, even more severe manifestations of Sjogren's syndrome can lead to joint pain, a type of gastroesophageal reflux disease, and inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis) that can contribute to kidney damage, lung damage, and nervous system damage ranging from mood swings to strokes.

Treatment Options for Sjogren's Disease

Sjogren's disease is often categorized as secondary (occurring as part of some other autoimmune disease) or primary, occurring as a freestanding condition. Secondary Sjogren's syndrome is treated symptomatically, but only as a side-issue to the underlying pathology.

Primary Sjogren's syndrome may be benign, mild and non-progressive, but it may be systemic and potentially threatening. Benign and systemic cases are also treated according to symptoms, but specialists now recognize that Sjogren's syndrome has the potential to cause serious problems and it requires careful and thorough follow-up to manage its progression and the tissue damage that it can cause.

Treatment options usually begin with artificial tears, aggressive oral hygiene care, and medications that promote the production of saliva. Room humidifiers can help with dry mouth and irritated nasal sinuses. If these are insufficient, other strategies include medications that suppress immune system activity, steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, and drugs that address organ-by-organ problems that systemic Sjogren's syndrome might involve.

What about massage?

When a client's Sjogren's syndrome is connected to other autoimmune disorders, the therapist must gather information about these conditions before making choices about massage. Lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis all affect the connective tissues, and bodywork practitioners need to be sure that their work is not exacerbating symptoms or problems. It is generally suggested to save rigorous mechanical types of bodywork for periods of remission with autoimmune diseases. During flares most clients are better off with reflexive or energetic types of bodywork that invite stability rather than challenge homeostasis.

Most people who have primary Sjogren's syndrome experience this as a mildly annoying but manageable condition that doesn't significantly impact their quality of life. In these situations choices about massage are not specifically influenced by this condition. However, in those rare cases where it is associated with very severe symptoms, then accommodations for bodywork may be necessary.

For next time: it's up to you, readers. If anyone is interested in more information about Sjogren's syndrome partners (lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis), let me know. Alternatively, I've sensed some interest in the role of massage in the context of cosmetic surgery. Do you work in a plastic surgery office? Have you seen massage as a post-operative strategy to reduce swelling after liposuction or facelifts? Do you have clients who use botox as a cosmetic intervention? What do you find about massage in that setting?

Use this column as a way to share your wisdom with your colleagues and let me know: what's on your table? Until then, many thanks and many blessings.


  1. Mavragani CP, et al. The management of Sjogren's syndrome. Nat Clin Pract Rheumatol, 2006;2(5):252-61.
  2. "NINDS Sjogren's Syndrome Information Page." National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. URL: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/sjogrens/sjogrens.htm.
  3. Shiel W. "Sjogren's Syndrome." 2009 MedicineNet, Inc. URL: http://www.medicinenet.com/sjogrens_syndrome/article.htm.
  4. Wise C. Sjogren's Syndrome. 2009 American College of Rheumatology. URL: http://www.rheumatology.org/public/factsheets/diseases_and_conditions/sjogrens.asp?aud=pat