Steve Gleason, Phil Mickelson, Venus Williams: Athletes with Autoimmune Diseases

We look up to and idolize athletes in much the same way we do superheroes, but there are some times when we realize that these athletes are only human. The announcement of one of our heroes, such as Steve Gleason, Phil Mickelson and Venus Williams, diagnosed with an autoimmune disease is one of those times.

Venus Williams diagnosed with Sjogren's
wikimedia Commons

Autoimmune diseases do not discriminate and can attack any person. As someone who battles an autoimmune disease, I know this firsthand and live with it every day. In a way, knowing the battles these athletes face with a disease and their ability to push forward despite it actually makes them heroes, in my eyes.

There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases in the world. They include more common diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes to more rare conditions such as Bahcet's disease. One common link between them is the malfunction of your autoimmune system.

In healthy individuals, the autoimmune system works to protect your body from invading viruses and bacteria, but in someone with an autoimmune disease, the immune system malfunctions and attacks healthy cells. The diseases can cause pain and many other varying symptoms. Living with these diseases can be difficult and debilitating. But, despite the pain and symptoms, you can still continue with life, as has been shown by the following athletes diagnosed with autoimmune diseases.

Venus Williams and Sjogren's

Just this year, Venus Williams, one of the best tennis stars in the world, announced that she had been diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome. This is an autoimmune disease that affects the moisture glands that are found in your eyes and mouth. The immune system attacks these glands and reduces the production of moisture. Sjorgen's can also cause extreme pain and stiffness in the joints, as well as swelling. It can also affect the lungs, brain, nerves, kidneys, thyroid and liver. It can occur on its own but is also very common in patients with other autoimmune diseases. As you can imagine, joint pain and swelling for a tennis player is not an ideal condition, but Venus has managed to continue and push through the disease, making her a real champion.

Phil Mickelson and Psoriatic Arthritis

Phil Mickelson, a top American PGA golfer, in 2010 announced his battle with psoriatic arthritis. You may see him now on television commercials advertising medication to manage the symptoms of the disease. Psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes psoriasis, or a rash on the skin, as well as arthritis in the joints. It can affect only a few joints of can be severe and affect many joints, including the spine.

Phil has been very open with his battle of this debilitating disease and has started a program to help raise awareness to chronic diseases such as psoriatic arthritis. His campaign, "On Course with Phil," is designed to promote early detection and treatment of these diseases. Not only can he still play a great round of golf, but he is doing amazing things to help others with these conditions.

Steve Gleason and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Steve Gleason, a retired New Orleans Saints safety made famous for the blocked punt on the opening night of the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, is now fighting a huge battle. In September 2011, Gleason announced he had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease after it took the life of legendary Yankee Lou Gehrig.

ALS is a rapidly progressive and fatal neurological disease that attacks the neurons that control voluntary muscles. Eventually all muscles are affected by the disease, including the diaphragm, and cause most patients to die from respiratory failure. From the onset of symptoms, the usual life expectancy is only three to five years.

In hopes of being able to continue to inspire people, Gleason is using his diagnosis as a way to help others with the disease. He has created an organization called "Team Gleason" and hopes to improve the lives of people living with ALS.

Deborah Braconnier is a former athlete and 20 year medical professional. She has personal experience with a variety of different sports injuries and has had both knee and spinal surgery. Working now as a freelance writer and living with an autoimmune disease, she brings her love for both sports and the medical field together in her writing.

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Updated Tuesday, Oct 18, 2011