• Sarah Schafer, MD

What you should know about Sjogren's lung disease- (rev.3-5-21)

Updated: Sep 8

This page summarizes what patients should know about lung (pulmonary) disease. It introduces the new Sjogren's Pulmonary Clinical Practice Guidelines, an essential read for clinicians, especially rheumatologists and pulmonologists. The first page of these guidelines provides an excellent overview of Sjogren's lung disease. This page is key to increasing clinician awareness about Sjogren's lung disease. I suggest giving rheumatologist, PCP, ENT and pulmonologist a copy of this summary document, preferably together with a print out of the PDF version of the entire journal article .

TIP: You can "market" these documents as new guidelines that were created by a team of experts in rheumatology, pulmonology, and oncology (or you can just say top experts). We are indebted to the Sjogren’s Foundation .and the many expert clinicians who volunteered their time to create this document.

Most clinicians remain unaware that more than half of Sjogren's patients have evidence of lung disease on evaluation. Importantly, chronic cough, often blamed on dryness, maybe be a sign of lung disease. Many patients found to have lung disease are considered asymptomatic. It is likely many of them actually do have symptoms that are blamed on dryness, asthma, allergies, or being "out of shape."

Why would you need to promote a document of such obvious importance? The short answer: the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) does not publish and promote Clinical Practice Guidelines (CPGs) that they did not create. The ACR is the main source of clinical guidance for most U.S. rheumatologists. The Sjogren’s Foundation stepped up to the plate to create Sjogren’s CPGs because the ACR would not. Because of Sjogren’s Neglect at every level, especially at the ACR, many rheumatologists are not up to date on Sjogren’s, or even aware that Sjogren’s Clinical Practice Guidelines exist.

Sjogren’s lung disease is very common and often remains undiagnosed.

“Up to 65 % of asymptomatic patients have abnormal pulmonary imaging.” This statement in the introduction to the CPGs can be confusing because it follows this one: “Approximately 16% of Sjögren’s patients demonstrate pulmonary complications.." So which is it? The abnormal imaging in 65% does indicate lung disease, often subclinical (102). Subclinical means no symptoms, mild symptoms, or symptoms that were not noted by a clinician. But just because the symptoms weren’t noted or measured does not mean that lung disease is not there. Lung disease is actually far more prevalent than 16 %. The lower estimate reflects past studies done almost exclusively in patients with obvious symptoms.

My comments: We now know that significant lung disease may occur in the absence of obvious symptoms. Moderate, or even severe, interstitial lung disease (ILD) may be present in asymptomatic patients (89). The same is true for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In a series of 51 unselected Sjogren's patients, 41% overall (and 34% of never-smokers) met the GOLD criteria for COPD (158).

There are many types of Sjogren’s lung disease: interstitial lung disease, COPD, cystic lung disease, bronchiolitis, bronchiectasis, and others. Some patients have more than one type of lung disease. More details are covered in the CPGs, including a section on lymphoma of the lung (uncommon).

Sjogren’s lung disease demonstrates a wide range of severity. Lung disease may follow a mild course, in which case it may not need treatment. Regardless of severity, it must be monitored for progression because it can lead to serious breathing problems and lower quality of life. It is the direct cause of death in a small but significant number of Sjogren’s patients. Early diagnosis and management are key to better outcomes.

Who should get tested for lung disease?

  • All Sjogren’s patients should be routinely screened with a lung symptom history and physical examination. See ACTION STEPS below.

  • Decisions about evaluation for lung disease should be the same regardless of serologic markers such as SS-A, ANA, etc. (Table 1 journal article, Pulmonary CPGs)

In other words, antibody negative patients should be evaluated in the same manner as antibody positive patients.

Specific tests

Asymptomatic patients In an ideal world, every Sjogren’s patient, regardless of symptoms, would have a baseline chest X-ray (CXR) and pulmonary function tests (PFTs). This was the most controversial topic during CPG development. According to the authors, these tests were not recommended more strongly for asymptomatic patients because of “the burden and expense of obtaining PFTs as well as an improbability of non-pulmonologists ordering such tests due to inadequate awareness of and appreciation for pulmonary manifestations in Sjogren’s.”

Note that even these two screening tests would miss some patients with lung disease. This is why it is so important to be evaluated if you have even mild symptoms that might be caused by lung disease.

Symptomatic patients While evaluation should be tailored to individual circumstances, complete PFTs and high resolution CT scan (HRCT) are usually recommended for any Sjogren’s patient with pulmonary symptoms or findings on examination.

Chronic cough may have causes other than Sjogren’s lung disease. Examples include dry trachea, gastroesophageal reflux, asthma and others (See Table 3, journal article CPGs). It is good to keep in mind that Sjogren’s lung disease may co-occur with these common conditions.

Lung disease treatments

See the CPGs for detailed treatment recommendations. This is a complicated topic that must be managed by a pulmonologist familiar with Sjogren’s lung disease.

ACTION STEPS for Sjogren’s patients

1. Always tell your doctor if you are experiencing possible lung symptoms even if they are mild. Examples include chronic cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath, especially on exertion.

2. Be sure that your doctors listen to your lungs with a stethoscope at routine visits. It is especially important that they listen to the bases (near the bottom of the rib cage). This is tricky to bring up if they are not already doing this: You might ask, “Do you mind listening to my lungs today?”

3. Copy the Flow Chart (Figure 1, page 687 of PDF)

Take this handy one-page summary to use for discussion with your rheumatologist and other clinicians.

4. Offer printouts of the entire CPG document and journal article to your rheumatologist, pulmonologist, ENT and PCP.

5. Keep in mind that Sjogren’s Advocate is written with patients and PCPs in mind. It is best to share primary sources such as peer-reviewed articles, Clinical Practice Guidelines, and other Sjogren’s Foundation materials with rheumatologists and other specialists.

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