What Treatments Are Available for Systemic Sclerosis?

If you have systemic sclerosis, your healthcare provider may offer you various treatment options to help manage the symptoms, problems, and functional mobility loss typically associated with the condition. Various treatments are available to help gain control—and keep control—of your systemic sclerosis.

Photo of a doctor examining a woman's skin
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What Is Systemic Sclerosis?

Systemic sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the blood vessels and connective tissues in your body, such as collagen. Collagen is a major structural component of your skin and internal organs. If you have systemic sclerosis, your body's immune system is believed to trigger abnormal changes to the connective tissues and blood vessels. These changes can affect your skin, muscles, tendons, and internal organs. 

Is There a Cure?

There is no cure for systemic sclerosis, so symptom management is typically the main focus. If you have been diagnosed with systemic sclerosis, your healthcare provider will likely recommend you get started on treatment right away. The sooner you treat your condition, the more likely it is that you will be able to control the symptoms you may have.

Management of systemic sclerosis can be complicated; many different body systems may (or may not) be affected, so working closely with your healthcare provider is essential.

Commonly Treated Symptoms

There are a variety of signs and symptoms that may be present if you have systemic sclerosis. These may include:

  • Raynaud's phenomenon
  • Tightening of your skin around the joints and other bony prominences
  • Shiny skin
  • Abdominal bloating after eating
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty swallowing food
  • Gastric upset and constipation
  • Hair loss
  • Small calcium deposits under your skin

If you have any of these symptoms or suspect you have systemic sclerosis, check in with your healthcare provider. Having one of these doesn't necessarily mean you have the disease. Rather, a cluster of these symptoms presenting over a period of time is more suggestive of a systemic sclerosis diagnosis.

Common Treatment Options

Treatment of systemic sclerosis may include:

  • Medication. Medicine for systemic sclerosis may include immune system modulators and occasionally, steroids. Steroids, like prednisone, may be prescribed to help keep acute inflammation under control. Immune system modulators may also be used to prevent your body's immune system from triggering abnormal collagen formation. If your gastrointestinal system is affected, medication may be used to help modulate processes associated with that system. Since systemic sclerosis may affect several body systems, your healthcare provider may prescribe a variety of medications to treat the various symptoms and problems associated with the disease and your specific condition.
  • Topical emollients. If your systemic sclerosis is affecting your skin, you may benefit from using various topical emollients to help keep your skin and collagen tissue soft and moving properly. A short course of topical steroids or antihistamines may help manage tightness or itching that may occur with the disease.
  • Physical therapy. Since joint pain and stiffness often accompany systemic sclerosis, your functional mobility may be limited. Working with a physical therapist may be beneficial. Your PT can perform stretches to keep your skin and joints moving properly, and exercises can be prescribed as part of a home exercise program to maximize your overall mobility.
  • Occupational therapy. Occupational therapy may be beneficial for patients with systemic sclerosis to help keep your fingers and thumbs moving properly. Stretches and exercises can be done to maximize hand function and braces or other supports may be used to ensure proper joint support for your hands.
  • Emotional support. Many patients with systemic sclerosis suffer from depression and anxiety as a result of the condition. Seeking out emotional support from a professional therapist and from family members and friends may be helpful.
  • Exercise. Exercise can be a helpful treatment for systemic sclerosis, as it can keep your body moving and functioning properly and can promote circulation and blood flow throughout the body. Exercises can also improve feelings of well-being and have a positive emotional impact.

Systemic sclerosis affects each patient differently, so choosing the best treatment for you should be a specialized process that you undergo with your healthcare provider. Typically, a combination of medication and conservative therapies are used in the successful management of the disease.

Cardiopulmonary involvement can occur in systemic sclerosis. It is important to be evaluated for this complication. Testing may include pulmonary function testing and imaging of the lungs and heart on a periodic basis. Based on the results of these studies, specialized treatments may be needed.

Getting Started With Treatment

So how do you get started with your systemic sclerosis management and treatment? The best thing to do is to work closely with your healthcare provider. He or she can determine the type of systemic sclerosis you have (there are many different kinds) and can get you started on treatments that target your specific presentation of the disease. There may be some trial and error, so be ready to switch between various modalities of care until the best treatment for your specific condition is found.

A Word From Verywell

There is no cure for systemic sclerosis, so your treatment should focus on managing the condition and the symptoms associated with it. Each person experiences a different set of symptoms and problems with the disease, so working with your healthcare provider is crucial to the proper management of systemic sclerosis. By understanding your specific symptoms and condition, you can be sure to apply the best management for your condition and maximize your chances for a positive outcome with systemic sclerosis.

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  • Scleroderma Handout On Health. NIAMS.
  • Sunderkotter, C, et al. Phototherapy: a Promising Treatment Option for Skin Sclerosis in Scleroderma? Rheumatology, 45(3), October 2006: 52-54.

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.