What is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma is not a disorder spoken about, or published about frequently. This is because it is a rare disease that usually does not appear until the person is between the ages of 30 and 50. This disorder affects more women than men. There are a large quantity of medications and treatments that can help relieve the symptoms and greatly improve the quality of life.

This disease is characterized by the connective tissues and the skin becoming tight and hardening. The connective tissues this disease tends to focus on are the fibers providing framework to the body, and support for your posture and ability to move items from one location to another.

Many people only experience symptoms of scleroderma in their skin. However, a lot of patients experience the disease in a way that it damages important structures below the skin. This disorder has the ability to affect blood vessels, internal organs, and even the digestive tract and intestines.

What are the Symptoms of Scleroderma?

The signs and symptoms experienced with scleroderma will be different for every person. They are also different depending on the parts of the body that are affected by the condition.

There are some generalized symptoms that can be expected from the disease. Please read the following list:

  • Skin: Almost every patient with scleroderma experiences the textbook hardening and tightening of skin patches.
  • Fingers and toes: One of the first symptoms that suffers of scleroderma experience is the overly exaggerated response to certain things. The main things their body over responds to are cold temperatures and emotional stress. Both of these can quickly lead to numbness and pain. The fingers and toes may also turn colors. While this is how doctors describe it, the condition that causes this response is called Raynaud’s disease. Raynaud’s disease is a secondary condition that piggybacks on many other disorders, including scleroderma.
  • Digestive Issues: Many people with scleroderma suffer from acid reflux. Over time, this can damage the esophagus. People with scleroderma also develop problems with nutrient absorption. This is mostly because their food does not move properly through their intestines.
  • Depleted Function of Internal Organs: The primary organs affected by this disorder are the heart, kidneys and lungs. These must be monitored frequently so that medication can be prescribed at the first sign of damage. If they are not monitored, the damage can accelerate and become life-threatening.

Scleroderma Causes

Doctors know that scleroderma is the result of an overproduction of collagen that accumulates in body tissue over time, but they do not know what causes this overproduction to happen in the first place. Although some researchers have found evidence that there are some genes that play a role in the condition, they believe there are things in the environment that play a role in the development as well. Right now, many researchers are focused on the roles cytokines (cell messengers in the body) could be playing.

People from families with a history of autoimmune disorders, especially rheumatic diseases, are more likely to develop scleroderma, as are women over men. While no age group is immune to it, it most often comes up between the ages of 25 and 55.

As a general rule, scleroderma can affect any group of people. However, Choctaw Native Americans and African-Americans are more likely to develop the form of scleroderma that affects internal organs than other people groups in the United States.

How is Scleroderma Treated?

In many cases, the skin condition associated with scleroderma clears up on its own after about five years. However, the type of scleroderma that affects internal organs only gets worse with time.

In order to stop the disorder from causing further damage to the organs, and help control the damage that has already been done, medication must be prescribed.

The medications that are prescribed to treat these complications fall into the following classes:

  • Blood vessel dilators
  • Immune suppressant drugs
  • Antacids
  • Antibiotics
  • Pain relievers

In many cases, doctors will provide a referral to physical therapy to help build the muscles surrounding damaged tissue. Many patients find that physical therapy helps more than the pain medication, and it also works for a longer duration of time.

Scleroderma Prevention

Because no one is sure of exactly what causes the overproduction of collagen that leads to scleroderma, there is currently no way to prevent it from occurring.

With all of the different forms of scleroderma that exist and combinations of symptoms that can appear within those forms, individual symptoms are treated once a diagnosis is made in hopes of halting the progress in more serious cases.

People from families with a history of rheumatic diseases should discuss their risk of developing those conditions with their doctor, as well as the potential for scleroderma. Those who are already diagnosed should follow the medical treatment plan suggested by their doctors for their disorder. Both should seek immediate treatment if they see symptoms of scleroderma appear.