On Behçet’s Disease

Jamaican-born American runner Sanya Richards-Ross brought two Olympic gold medals home from London last week. It’s an impressive feat—she came within less than a second of breaking the record she herself set six years earlier, and bested her bronze-medal time at Beijing by nearly half a second.

More impressive than that is that Richards-Ross was facing more than just the other runners on the track. Richards-Ross is one of a number of Americans diagnosed with Behçet’s disease, an autoimmune disorder.

People with Behçet’s disease—pronounced “BEH-chet”—develop canker sores in the mouth and elsewhere as well as eye inflammation. The disease can also cause arthritis and skin problems, and might lead to inflammation of the digestive tract, brain, and spinal cord.

These are not continual; the symptoms come and go. In fact, that can confound diagnosis, which can take years. As with most autoimmune diseases, while the cause is unknown, Behçet’s disease is not contagious.

The condition is particularly dangerous when it affects the brain. Behçet’s can cause headaches, confusion, strokes, and personality changes. Brain inflammation from Behçet’s can also result in meningoencephalitis, with accompanying fever, headache, stiff neck, and lack of coordination.

The treatments available for Behçet’s disease are the usual ones available for autoimmune diseases. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, the corticosteroid prednisone, and immunosuppressants to quiet the immune system and prevent it from attacking the body.

Behçet’s disease is rare—though hardly unknown—in the United States. If you think you might have it, your doctor will run tests to rule out other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis which may have similar symptoms. If you do have Behçet’s disease, your doctor can work with you to help develop a treatment strategy that preserves your quality of life.

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