Scleroderma is a disease that causes thickening and tightness of the skin. Often the swallowing muscles get tight, making it hard to swallow. Blood vessels and other organs may also become stiff. For most people the effects of scleroderma are mild and limited to the skin and to the muscles used for swallowing. This form of the disease is called localized scleroderma.
A more severe form of scleroderma is called systemic sclerosis. It affects many organs in the body. In this form of the illness, the same hardness that affects the skin and swallowing muscles can severely damage or destroy the kidneys, heart, lungs, and organs of the digestive tract.
Scleroderma usually develops in middle age.
Each organ affected by scleroderma, including the skin, goes through a sequence of destructive changes: from inflammation, to hardening, and then to complete scarring. In severe cases some organs eventually stop working.
Most people with systemic sclerosis appear to have antibodies in their blood that attack their cells and tissues. This is an autoimmune problem, which means the body mistakenly attacks its own tissue. Doctors don’t know why this happens.
In the milder, localized form of scleroderma the destructive changes sometimes seem to be brought on by exposure on the job. An example is long-term use of a jackhammer with constant vibration.
Changes in the skin are among the most common symptoms of scleroderma. The fingers and other patches of skin become hard and numb. These areas of skin may look smooth and slightly swollen. The skin may get tight, making it hard to move the joints, especially the fingers, wrists, and elbows. This tightness may happen around the mouth as well.
Another very common symptom is a reaction called Raynaud's disease. Raynaud's disease can be brought on by cold temperatures, emotion, or stress. When this happens, the fingers and sometimes toes, ears, and nose are very sensitive to cold temperatures. They react to cold by turning pale, then blue, and eventually red. The skin feels cold and then may throb or feel numb, tingly, or painful as it warms up or as stress is relieved. Each attack of symptoms usually lasts for just a few minutes, but some may last more than an hour.
Other possible symptoms of scleroderma include:
The symptoms of localized scleroderma tend to develop slowly over time. The symptoms of systemic sclerosis may develop slowly or they may happen suddenly and get worse quickly.
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam. He or she will examine your skin.
Possible tests for scleroderma include:
Other tests may be done to check organs such as your liver, kidneys, heart, or lungs.
There is no single drug treatment for scleroderma. Sometimes medicines that suppress the immune system are used. Steroids, which are often helpful in other inflammatory or autoimmune diseases, do not seem to be helpful in scleroderma. Most treatment for scleroderma is directed at specific symptoms.
Raynaud's disease may be helped with medicines called calcium channel blockers, which help the circulation. Another medicine for Raynaud's is nitroglycerin ointment, which is rubbed onto the skin. Even with medicine, however, it is very important to dress properly for the weather and avoid letting your skin get cold. Also, do your best to avoid stressful situations.
Treatment of scleroderma, and especially systemic sclerosis, includes frequent checks of your blood pressure. Prompt treatment of any increases in blood pressure with medicine may help prevent or slow damage to the kidneys. It will also help prevent other complications of high blood pressure, such as heart disease and stroke.
Research for scleroderma treatment is ongoing. Many drugs are being studied to see if they will prevent or control the effects of scleroderma.
Scleroderma is a permanent condition, although the symptoms may come and go. Unfortunately, in most cases the symptoms get worse with time. However, much research is being focused on autoimmune diseases. Treatments may be found soon that will help slow or stop the course of scleroderma.
There is no known way to prevent scleroderma.