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Harlequin Syndrome is no sweat -- no, really

Rebecca Adler writes: My game face has been known to cause genuine panic on the field -- mostly among race officials and umpires worried they’ve got some kind of medical emergency on their hands. Either they think I’ve somehow been severely sunburned on just one side of my face or they worry that I’m on my way to having heat stroke.

I have a condition called Harlequin Syndrome, which causes me to sweat and flush red on only on the left side of my body.

I got it the day after I was born, in the same way that anyone gets it -- by sustaining an injury to the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that reacts to stress and flight-or-fight circumstances), according to Peter Drummond, a professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.

(FYI, it was Drummond who first researched the condition and coined the catchy term “Harlequin Syndrome” in 1988 after researching others who have it.)

But it isn’t just general trauma to the sympathetic nervous system. It occurs at a very specific area of that system: the space right between the shoulder blades where the sympathetic nerves leave the spinal cord.

While many of the subjects in Drummond’s studies were unable to identify the cause of the trauma to the nervous system, mine left a road map in the form of a six-inch-long scar tracing the shape of my right shoulder blade. It was an emergency operation that caused the damage to my nervous system that would later earn me the nickname Two-Face -- Thank you, Tim Burton, for releasing the movie "Batman Forever" during my freshman year of high school! -- and cause every shirt I own to get sweat stains on only the left side.

Only about 200,000 people in the United States are thought to share in the phenomenon that is Harlequin Syndrome, which can affect either the left or the right side of the body. Some with the condition are even known to turn red on one side and sweat on the other side. Regardless, there is always a strict dividing line between the flushed, sweaty side and the cool, dry side. While there are no real treatments for the condition, there are also, luckily, no known dangerous side effects, says Drummond. This means that as long as we’re OK with strangers' panicked requests that we go to the emergency room, the constant disposal of only half-ruined T-shirts and the discomfort of feeling our heartbeat in only the flushed side of our faces, then those of us with the condition can sweat it out as much as we’d like.

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