What Is Scleroderma?

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Scleroderma is a chronic, autoimmune connective disease that causes changes in the skin, blood vessels, and internal organs due to excess collagen production. While the symptoms of scleroderma vary from person to person, the most visible manifestation of this disease is skin hardening and tightening. Organs, such as the lungs, kidneys, heart, and digestive tract, may also be affected. There is no cure, but a combination of self-care strategies and medications can help ease symptoms and prevent complications.

Scleroderma Symptoms

There are two main types of scleroderma. Localized scleroderma is limited to skin hardening, while systemic sclerosis involves affects blood vessels and internal organs, in addition to the skin.

Localized Scleroderma

Localized scleroderma primarily affects only the skin and is seen mostly in children.

Symptoms may include:

  • Morphea: Discolored, hard plaques on the trunk, arms, and legs
  • Linear scleroderma: Streaks of thickened and abnormally colored skin that often affects the arms, legs, and forehead

Systemic Sclerosis

Systemic sclerosis is divided into two subtypes: limited cutaneous systemic sclerosis and diffuse cutaneous systemic scleroderma.

Limited Cutaneous Systemic Sclerosis

This subtype of scleroderma is also called CREST syndrome based on the symptoms it causes. It is usually restricted to certain areas of the body, mostly the hands and, to a lesser degree, the face and neck.

Classic symptoms of limited scleroderma (which fit the CREST mnemonic) include:

  • Calcinosis: Calcium deposits that look like small, white lumps underneath the skin
  • Raynaud's phenomenon: When fingers and toes turn a white or bluish color in response to cold or stress
  • Abnormal movement of the esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach
  • Sclerodactyly: Thick, tight, and shiny skin on fingers or toes that results from an overproduction of collagen
  • Telangiectasias: Dilated blood vessels that cause small, red spots on hands and face

Diffuse Cutaneous Systemic Scleroderma

Diffuse cutaneous systemic scleroderma causes more extensive skin thickening and tightening, often moving beyond the hands to above the wrists. Internal organs, such as the lungs, kidneys, heart, and digestive and musculoskeletal system, are also commonly affected.

For example, joint and muscle pain is common in the early stages of scleroderma, as is swelling of the hands.

When scleroderma affects the kidneys, a rare but severe complication, called scleroderma renal crisis, may develop. With this condition, a person develops malignant high blood pressure along with kidney failure.

Likewise, scleroderma-related heart problems may manifest as abnormal heart rhythms or congestive heart failure.

Lung complications—interstitial lung disease (scarring of the lung tissue) and pulmonary arterial hypertension (high blood pressure in the arteries of the lung)—are the leading causes of death in systemic sclerosis.

Causes

Scleroderma results from abnormalities within three different systems or tissues of the body:

What causes these abnormalities remains largely unknown. Experts suspect, though, that a combination of genetics and exposure to an environmental factor is the likely culprit behind the development of scleroderma. Environmental exposures that have been evaluated include certain toxins (e.g., polyvinyl chloride, benzene, and silica) and infection with a virus or parasite.

Women between 30 and 50 years old account for 75% of scleroderma cases, but men and children of any age group can also develop it. The condition usually develops between the ages of 25 to 55.

Diagnosis

No single test serves as a definitive diagnosis for scleroderma. Rather, a combination of findings from a medical history, physical examination, and various studies are used to diagnose this disease.

History and Physical Examination

Many symptoms of scleroderma may come to light during an appointment with your doctor. For instance, a patient may notice a change in the physical appearance of their face due to skin hardening and tightening. Their hands may also appear puffy, and there may be excoriations (evidence of skin picking) and scabs present from itching caused by inflammation occurring beneath the skin.

Moreover, in a patient with scleroderma, a doctor may notice stiff joints, enlarged blood vessels on the face and hands (telangiectasias), and calcium deposits on the fingers or along certain tendons.

Raynaud's phenomenon is one of the earliest signs of disease in scleroderma. Keep in mind, though, that there are other causes besides scleroderma, which will need to be considered. Raynaud's phenomenon may also exist on its own, meaning it's not associated with any underlying disease process.

Complaints of digestive problems—acid reflux and problems swallowing—may also be reported, as can color changes (red, blue, and white) in the fingers and sometimes, toes, especially when exposed to the cold (Raynaud's phenomenon).

In the end, if your doctor suspects a potential diagnosis of scleroderma, they will refer you to someone who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of connective tissue diseases, called a rheumatologist.

Blood Tests

Various blood tests can support a diagnosis of scleroderma.

The vast majority of people with scleroderma are positive for the anti-nuclear antibody (ANA). In addition, the anti-topoisomerase I (anti-Scl-70) antibody is associated with diffuse cutaneous systemic scleroderma; the anticentromere antibody (ACA) is associated with limited cutaneous systemic scleroderma.

Because scleroderma may affect your kidney function, your doctor may also order urine tests and a blood test called the basic metabolic panel (BMP.

Imaging and Other Tests

Imaging and other tests are used to evaluate for internal organ involvement in scleroderma:

Examples of these tests include:

Treatment

There is no cure for scleroderma. In other words, there is no medication that can stop or reverse the skin from hardening and thickening. However, through a combination of self-care strategies and medications, many symptoms of scleroderma can be managed and some complications can be prevented.

Here are some examples of how various symptoms/complications are treated in scleroderma.

Raynaud's Phenomenon

Keeping the whole body warm (not just your hands and feet) by wearing a hat and multiple layers is important to managing this symptom.

Medications, such as calcium channel blockers or phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors, may also be used.

Digestive Problems

Along with lifestyle and diet changes, medications to control acid reflux, like the proton pump inhibitor Prilosec (omeprazole), can be helpful.

For problems swallowing related to scleroderma, the drug Reglan (metoclopramide) can provide some relief.

Kidney Disease

A medication called an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor is used to treat kidney problems related to scleroderma.

Lung Disease

The medications Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide) or CellCept (mycophenolate mofetil) are used to treat interstitial lung disease, which is one of two lung complications related to scleroderma.

For patients with symptomatic pulmonary arterial hypertension (a second lung complication of scleroderma), a variety of medications may be given including:

  • Prostacyclin-like drug: e.g., Tracleer (bosentan) or Letairis (ambrisentan)
  • PDE-5 inhibitors: e.g., Viagra (sildenafil) or Cialis (tadalafil)
  • Endothelin receptor antagonists: e.g., Flolan (epoprostenol), Remodulin (treprostinil), or Ventavis (iloprost)

Muscle and Joint Problems

Muscle and joint pain from scleroderma may be treated with a combination of physical and occupational therapy and medication, like a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

Coping

In addition to debilitating physical symptoms, people with scleroderma commonly report problems with sleeping and intimacy, as well as emotional problems, like depression and body image distress.

There are also social challenges; most people in the general population have very little (if any) knowledge about scleroderma. This lack of knowledge can lead to stigmatization and/or related isolation.

Financial worries, including steep medical bills and limited employment opportunities, are additional challenges faced by many people with scleroderma.

It perhaps goes without saying, then, that living with a chronic, complex, disease like scleroderma is an impactful experience. With support and a day-by-day approach, you can improve your quality of life and alleviate many of these stresses.

For support, the Scleroderma Foundation provides contact information for individuals and groups throughout the United States with whom you can talk or meet with, respectively. Getting to know others who experience your same struggles can be immensely comforting and helpful.

It's also sensible to work with a therapist, specifically someone who has experience helping those with chronic illnesses.

Lastly, to optimize your daily functioning and sense of well-being, it's important to adopt healthy lifestyle habits.

A few examples of these habits include:

  • Eating well-balanced, nutritious meals
  • Managing stress well (you may consider incorporating mind-body therapies, like mindfulness meditation, into your daily routine)
  • Avoiding smoking

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one has scleroderma, be sure to seek out care from a team of specialists who has experience treating this uncommon condition and its various manifestations.

Try to be at ease too—while scleroderma is a disease that poses unique challenges, there are therapies and strategies out there to help you manage it and live well.

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