What is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disease characterised by abnormal growth of connective tissue, which can lead to thickening and hardening of the skin and internal organs. Connective tissues are the tissues that hold together our joints, muscles, blood vessels and internal organs.

The connective tissues of people with scleroderma have too much of a protein called collagen. Collagen is what gives connective tissue its strength, but too much of it causes the tissue to harden and tighten.

Symptoms of Scleroderma

Many different areas of the body can be affected. Symptoms can be different depending on the person and the part of the body. But, can include:

Skin Changes: Thickening and hardening of the skin, particularly on the fingers, arms and face. Skin may appear shiny, smooth, or waxy, with limited mobility and flexibility. As well as small white chalky lumps (calcium deposits) under the skin.
Raynaud’s Phenomenon: The fingers or toes turn white, then blue in the cold, and then red as blood flow returns. This is caused by narrowing of the blood vessels, in response to cold weather.
Digestive Issues: Scleroderma can affect the digestive tract, leading to symptoms such as acid reflux, indigestion, heartburn, difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
Respiratory Complications: In some cases, scleroderma can cause scarring of the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis) or high blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension). This can lead to shortness of breath, coughing, and fatigue, as well as a reduced ability to exercise.
Joint Pain: Scleroderma may cause inflammation and stiffness in the joints and muscles, resembling symptoms of arthritis.

What Causes it?

The exact cause of scleroderma is unknown. Genetics, the immune system and environmental factors may play roles in causing this condition. This has yet to be proven in research.

In people with scleroderma, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues, triggering inflammation and excessive collagen production. This excess collagen deposition leads to fibrosis (scarring) and thickening of the skin and internal organs.

How is it Diagnosed?

There is no specific test for scleroderma.

Your doctor will diagnose scleroderma from your symptoms, a physical examination and various tests, such as blood tests or a skin biopsy (a small piece of skin is removed and examined under a microscope).

It may take several visits before your doctor can tell if you have scleroderma as the symptoms can overlap with other diseases and types of arthritis.

What is the Treatment?

There is currently no cure for Scleroderma. But, many people with the condition are able to lead a normal, or nearly normal, life with simple treatment or lifestyle changes.

  • Talk to your doctor about medicines – some medicines may help with problems with joints and muscles, blood vessels, kidneys, lungs or the digestive system.
  • Manage Raynaud’s Phenomenon – minimise exposure to cold and sudden temperature changes. Keep you hands and feet warm with gloves and warm socks.
  • Look after your skin – by keeping it clean, well-lubricated and warm to help prevent dryness and infections. Moisturisers, protective clothing, and gentle skin care practices can help reduce skin tightness and prevent complications such as ulcers or infections.
  • Live a healthy life – With regular physical activity, a healthy diet and stopping smoking. The healthy activities will help keep your skin and joints flexible, boost circulation, help reduce problems with the digestive system, and reduce stress to help your overall health and wellbeing.
  • Acknowledge your feelings and seek support – It is natural to feel scared, frustrated, sad and sometimes angry. Be aware of these feelings and get help if they start affecting your daily life.

Download our free information sheet on Scleroderma

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