Scleroderma is a disease that involves the formation of scar tissue within the skin and in some case, other organs of the body. This condition causes a hardening and thickening of the skin and may also affect the blood vessels, digestive tract, and in severe cases, the heart, lungs, kidneys or other vital organs. Localized scleroderma only affects the skin on the hands and face and rarely affects other areas of the body. Systemic scleroderma may affect additional areas of the skin as well as internal organs. Scleroderma is considered a rare condition, and it is more common in women than in men. Symptoms of scleroderma often occur between the ages of 30 and 50.
Causes of Scleroderma
Scleroderma occurs from an overproduction of collagen within the tissue of the body. The exact cause of the abnormal collagen production is unknown, but is believed to be caused by an autoimmune response. For an unknown reason, the immune system attacks the tissue of the body, causing inflammation and the overproduction of collagen.
Symptoms of Scleroderma
Symptoms of scleroderma may vary depending on which part of the body is affected. Skin changes are a common symptom of this condition and may include thickened patches or hardened bands of skin, as well as swollen fingers and hands. Additional symptoms may include:
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Raynaud's phenomenon, numbness or color changes in fingers or toes
- Joint stiffness and swelling
Although not common, scleroderma can affect internal organs and cause lung damage, heart problems, high blood pressure and kidney problems.
Complications of Scleroderma
When scleroderma affects major organs within the body, complications may arise. Complications may range in severity and can affect different areas of the body in different ways.
Lung tissue may become scarred causing decreased lung function and severe lung disease. Pulmonary hypertension may occur in the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs.
Scleroderma may cause scarring of heart tissue and swelling of the heart muscle. Abnormal heart beats and congestive heart failure may also occur.
Scleroderma can cause extremely high blood pressure that may lead to kidney failure. This may also lead excessive amounts of protein in the urine.
Scleroderma can cause digestive problems such as acid reflux, constipation and diarrhea. It may also cause problems with swallowing.
Men who have scleroderma may also suffer from erectile dysfunction. Scleroderma may also affect the sexual function of women, by decreasing sexual lubrication and constricting the vaginal opening.
Diagnosis of Scleroderma
Scleroderma may be difficult to diagnose as symptoms may vary and mimic symptoms of other medical conditions. To diagnose scleroderma, the doctor will review all symptoms and perform a full physical examination. Additional diagnostic tests may include:
- Skin biopsy
- Breathing tests
- CT scan
Blood tests may also be performed to check for elevated levels of certain antibodies produced by the immune system.
Treatment of Scleroderma
There is currently no cure available for scleroderma but several treatment options are available to help control symptoms of this condition. People with scleroderma may benefit from taking blood pressure medication or drugs to suppress the immune system. Additional medication may be prescribed to:
- Prevent infection
- Reduce stomach acid
- Relieve pain
Physical or occupational therapy may be beneficial to some patients to help manage pain and improve strength and mobility. Some patients find success with light therapy that may help to decrease the thickening of the skin.