Scleroderma, also called systemic sclerosis, is an autoimmune disease that produces scars and patches of thick, rough, or scaly skin. Symptoms range from mild to life-threatening, and in severe cases, scleroderma can damage the blood vessels and organs. Additionally, symptoms vary widely from person to person, which makes diagnosis difficult. Although there is no cure for scleroderma, medications can reduce symptoms and help individuals lead active lives.
Most scleroderma patients, including children, have just one or two patches of hard or rough skin. In this common form, the disease is unlikely to spread or cause organ damage. According to medical research, women are three to four times more likely to have scleroderma. Hereditary factors and ethnicity also affect the chances of scleroderma developing.
Raised, waxy skin accumulations known as morphea are a hallmark of localized scleroderma. Statistics show that morphea is most common in adults between the ages of 20 and 50. However, it also affects a fair number of children. These painless lesions vary in size, shape, and color and typically cause increased skin thickness. They frequently appear on the torso but may also affect the face and limbs. As the name suggests, morphea may change size or shape and appear or vanish without warning.
Sword wound scleroderma gets its name because it resembles the marks left by a knife or sword. This form of scleroderma causes linear patches of tough, waxy skin and cut-like scars that crease the forehead, neck, and scalp. The patches are usually on one side of the body only. Linear scleroderma is typically diagnosed in childhood and has the potential to affect limb development, so responsive treatment is important.
Scleroderma symptoms can be intermittent or progressive depending on the form. Individuals with diffuse systemic sclerosis may experience waxing and waning symptoms that fluctuate over months or years. On the other hand, cutaneous systemic sclerosis typically causes worsening symptoms. Rheumatologists can recommend medications to slow the disease's progression.
Limited scleroderma accounts for approximately half of all cases. This mild, restricted form of the disease produces minimal skin thickening that is limited to the face and hands. Symptoms typically appear slowly over a matter of several years. Despite the name, limited scleroderma may narrow the blood vessels of the lungs and lead to lung scarring, which can cause shortness of breath.
Although most patients have mild to moderate scleroderma, severe forms can injure the lungs, kidneys, and heart. Damage to the tissue and blood vessels may impair organ function and result in serious complications.
Scleroderma is difficult to diagnose because it causes many common autoimmune symptoms. Due to atypical variations between individuals, even an experienced doctor may have difficulty pinpointing the exact cause of a person's symptoms, which can allow the condition to progress.
White fingers and toes that become numb and painful in response to cold could be an early symptom of systemic scleroderma. This condition is most common following cold weather. Although it is easy to dismiss this symptom, it could be a sign of Raynaud's phenomenon, a disease that causes blood vessel spasms. After this initial warning sign, individuals may notice other scleroderma symptoms appear or worsen.
Joint pain is associated with scleroderma and many other rheumatic diseases. Because this symptom is so common, it is not enough to form an accurate diagnosis on its own. Most rheumatologists will order blood tests to detect antibodies and rule out other medical conditions.
Severe fatigue is associated with scleroderma and many other chronic illnesses. Patients who have systemic sclerosis often complain of fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, individuals may experience stress before, during, and after the diagnosis, which can affect their mental health and well-being.
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