Scleroderma is a rare disease of the connective tissue. It can cause the tissue in skin, joints, and internal organs to thicken and stiffen. There are three major forms of the disease:
- Localized scleroderma (can be morphea or linea)—Usually affects only the skin in isolated parts of the body. This form is less serious.
- Systemic sclerosis—Affects widespread areas of skin and/or internal organs, most often the lungs. Certain categories of this form of scleroderma are more serious and can be fatal.
- Overlap syndrome—May involve features of scleroderma and features of other autoimmune syndromes.
Overproduction of collagen and other connective tissue proteins are the main features of scleroderma. It is not clear what causes this overproduction. Malfunction of the immune system may contribute to excess collagen production.
Scleroderma is more common in women. The morphea type of scleroderma usually strikes people around 20-40 years old. Linear scleroderma often occurs in children. Systemic scleroderma is more likely to occur in people aged 30-50 years old.
Other factors that may increase your chance of developing scleroderma include:
- Family members with autoimmune disorders
- Occupational chemical exposure, such as silica, ketones, or welding fumes
Symptoms are usually restricted to the skin. This disorder does not progress to involve internal organs. The skin lesions may completely reverse themselves in a few months or a few years. In some cases, they lead to permanent disfigurement. Symptoms include:
- Hard patches on the skin, most often on the face or trunk (morphea)
- Lines of plaques or thickened skin.
- Thickening can extend to underlying muscles and bones (linear scleroderma or linear morphea)
- Muscle and joint aches, and tiredness may occur with morphea
This form of the disease is typically categorized as either limited or diffuse disease. Many cases of limited disease begin gradually with
Raynaud's phenomenon. This involves swelling, tingling, numbness, blue and white color, and pain in fingers and toes. The fingers turn red after resolution of the symptoms. It is brought on by cold or emotional distress. The condition can progress over the years to thickened skin.
Raynaud's Phenomenon Symptom
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Diffuse scleroderma comes on more suddenly and can progress to involve not only the skin but the internal organs. Other symptoms of diffuse scleroderma may include:
- Diffuse thickening and hardening of the skin
- Joint and muscular pain, stiffness, and swelling
- Problems with breathing, swallowing, and digesting food due to thickening and hardening of lung, esophagus, bowel tissues
- Inflammation and thickening of large and small blood vessels
Complications of diffuse scleroderma can affect virtually every system of the body. Other common complications include:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is based on changes in the skin.
Tests may include:
- Blood tests
- Esophagus motility study
of skin and other tissues
Imaging tests take pictures of internal body structures. These may include:
There is no treatment to cure scleroderma. Treatments are aimed at relieving symptoms in various systems.
or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Medications to limit acid production in the stomach
- Small, frequent meals
Sleeping with your head elevated to avoid
- Prostanoids—drugs that control the immune system
- ACE inhibitors, or other antihypertensive drugs
- Antineoplastic agents
- Calcium channel blockers
- Proper shelter and clothing to avoid cold
- Prostanoids—drugs that control the immune system
- Not smoking
There are no current guidelines to prevent scleroderma.
Kreuter A, Hyun J, et al. A randomized controlled study of low-dose UVA1, medium-dose UVA1, and narrowband UVB phototherapy in the treatment of localized scleroderma.
J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006;54:440-447.
Mathai SC, Girgis RE, et al. Addition of sildenafil to bosentan monotherapy in pulmonary arterial hypertension.
Eur Respir J. 2007;29:469-475.
Rodriguez-Reyna TS, Alarcon-Segovia D. Overlap syndromes in the context of shared autoimmunity.
Scleroderma. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
. Updated August 2012. Accessed August 21, 2013.
Systemic sclerosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
. Updated August 5, 2013. Accessed August 21, 2013.
What is scleroderma? Scleroderma Foundation website. Available at:
. Accessed August 21, 2013.
Last reviewed May 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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