Venus Williams has always been popular among Lowcountry tennis fans. Spectators have probably never been as excited to see the 2004 Family Circle Cup champion return to Charleston as they are this year. She advanced to the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Florida on Monday after returning from a six-month layoff from professional tennis. The 2012 tournament marks an important step on the road to recovery for her tennis career – and her health.

Family Circle CupLast August Williams withdrew from the U.S. Open after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome. The 31-year-old American star and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles reportedly had been experiencing fatigue for about four years before her diagnosis was made. Most tennis fans had likely never heard of her disease until she went public with her battle.

Dr. Richard Silver, a rheumatologist and Distinguished University Professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, explains that Sjogren’s Syndrome is a common and yet underrecognized condition. Much more common in females than males, Dr. Silver suggests that as high as 1% of the adult population might have the disease.

“The classic manifestation of Sjogren’s Syndrome involves dry eyes and dry mouth,” he notes. “For athletes the challenge is often the overwhelming sense of fatigue the disease create. They often experience myalgias (muscle pains) as well.”

Onset of symptoms in the twenties and thirties and diagnosis later in life is not uncommon, Silver remarks. If the symptoms are mild, treatment involves symptomatic remedies such as eye drops. Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), an antimalarial drug, and anti-inflammatory medications often make up the first-line of drug treatments. Williams supposedly has adopted a raw diet and an aggressive conditioning program to combat the condition as well.

One major problem with Sjogren’s Syndrome seems to be that no treatment really cures it. And despite looking normal to casual observers, patients often feel much worse. Williams told the New York Times after withdrawing from last year’s U.S. Open, “Looking back, it’s affected my career in a huge way. I’ve been playing a lot of matches with a half a deck.”

Williams’ play in Miami this week has to be encouraging. As she prepares for the Summer Olympics in London, it will be interesting to see if she can maintain her level of play or if the fatigue of the travel and consecutive tournaments catch up to her. Hopefully tennis fans will be fortunate to see this popular and courageous star make a long run in our tournament.

Note: This post will appear in my sports medicine column in the March 29, 2012 issue of The Post and Courier.