What is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a rare disease that leads to fibrosis or hardening of the skin and connective tissue. In localized cases of scleroderma, the condition is confined to the skin and is generally limited to a small area. In contrast, systemic sclerosis is characterized by three features:

  • Narrowing and loss of small blood vessels
  • Hardening of the skin and certain internal organs
  • Presence of auto-antibodies and common overlap with other connective tissue diseases

The disease varies from person to person in terms of extent, its patterns of skin and organ involvement, and the rate of progression. In some individuals, symptoms may be so subtle as to elude diagnosis for decades. In others, the symptoms may be readily apparent within weeks of onset.

In raising awareness about scleroderma, the foundation aims to speed diagnosis so patients can begin treatment sooner.

The Truth About Scleroderma

Watch State University of New York Professor Virginia M. Orzel’s video on scleroderma.

Scleroderma: The Truth from Virginia M. Orzel

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Symptoms and Impact

Skin manifestations most commonly first affect the fingers, toes, and face with puffiness and then skin tightness. In those with "limited" scleroderma, skin changes generally remain confined to the hands and forearms, lower legs, and face. The progression is slow and skin changes may be minimal and easily missed. In "diffuse" scleroderma, skin changes usually appear more abruptly and progress much more rapidly, often with early involvement of the skin of the trunk, upper arms, and thighs. Tight skin may cause loss of joint motion, particularly at the hands and may be associated with intense itching and widespread joint and tendon discomfort. The fibrosis present in the skin may also affect internal organs, notably the lung and all portions of the gastrointestinal tract, most commonly the esophagus. Shortness of breath, heartburn, and difficulty with swallowing may each be presenting symptoms of the disease. Less commonly, fibrosis may involve the heart.

Vascular features of the disease are most commonly seen in the fingers or toes (Raynaud phenomenon – reversible cold-induced blanching or cyanosis of the fingers or toes), but similar blood vessel changes can occur in the kidney and lung. In the kidney, this can result in sudden, severe, but reversible hypertension. In the lung, the blood vessel changes can increase resistance to blood flow and force the right side of the heart to pump with greater pressure (pulmonary hypertension).​​​​​​​

Diagnosis and Treatment

The diagnosis of scleroderma is often possible simply on the basis of history and examination. Blood tests help in categorizing the disease. The history and examination tell us much about the extent and pace of the disease, the impact of the disease on daily activities, and help us determine disease prognosis.

Treatment plans must be individualized, though Raynaud phenomenon and esophageal symptoms afflict at some time and to greater or lesser extent most individuals with this disorder, whether they have limited or diffuse disease. The diagnosis of scleroderma should generate neither fear nor panic, but is certainly a call for action in determining the nature and extent of the disease. Some individuals may require no drug therapy. Many features of the disease have highly effective treatments. Some disease manifestations may spontaneously subside over time. However, there are aspects of the disease which are still poorly understood and, as a consequence, less satisfactorily addressed.