What is Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease?

Let's explore: what is undifferentiated connective tissue disease?

Undifferentiated connective tissue disease (UCTD) is a type of systemic autoimmune disease affecting the joints and muscles that cannot be classified under another type of connective tissue disease such as lupus, vasculitis, or rheumatoid arthritis. It is seen more often in Caucasian women between the ages of 40 and 60. Continue reading to learn about what is undifferentiated connective tissue disease.

In systemic autoimmune diseases, the body's immune system loses its ability to fight infections and instead attacks itself. With UCTD, the immune system may attack specific parts of the body resulting in various symptoms.

This disease is generally treated by a rheumatologist.

The designation "undifferentiated" implies that some symptoms of a connective tissue disorder exist but characteristic features used to define certain connective tissue disorders do not. For example, a person may have one or two characteristics such as muscle pains and certain antibodies in the blood, but no other definable features of a classic connective tissue disorder.

Causes of UCTD

The exact cause of UCTD, like many rheumatoid disorders, is still unknown but it is suspected that certain people are born with genetic factors that make them more susceptible to the condition. Environmental factors that cause a hyper-activation of the immune system such as an infection can lead to autoimmune disease.

People with undifferentiated connective tissue disease usually have a lower number of regulatory T cells. These are cells within the immune system that help to prevent autoimmune disease. Low numbers of regulatory T cells can cause the immune system to become overactive and attack the body resulting in undifferentiated connective tissue disease. Also, in patients with connective tissue disease, the two structural protein molecules of connective tissue, collagen, and elastin, can become injured due to inflammation.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of UCTD

Symptoms may include:

  • Joint pain
  • Arthritis
  • Muscle weakness
  • Constriction of the blood vessels particularly in the hands and feet
  • Sensitivity to light and extreme temperatures
  • Dryness in mouth and eyes
  • Rashes (generally on the face)
  • Mouth sores
  • Alopecia (hair loss)
  • Raynaud's phenomenon (color changes in hands and feet in response to cold)
  • Low-grade fever (typically under 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Photosensitivity (developing a rash or other skin sensitivity after exposure to sunlight)

Occasionally people will also develop:

  • Anemia (decreased number of red blood cells)
  • Leukopenia (decreased number of white blood cells)
  • Thrombocytopenia (decrease in number of platelets)
  • Pleurisy or pericarditis (inflammation of the lining surrounding the heart and lungs)
  • Neuropathy (unusual nerve sensations such as numbness, tingling or pain, particularly in the fingers or toes)

Luckily, patients with UCTD generally do not develop any major organ damage or life-threatening diseases. The disorder usually follows a mild course and rarely progresses to a more serious disease.

The symptoms of undifferentiated connective tissue disease can change over time. Symptoms are often less severe than with other connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, although patients will occasionally experience cardiovascular issues and/or frequent infections with pneumonia.

Blood tests are generally given to test levels of regulatory T cells and antibodies in the system. A computed tomography (CT) scan may also be used to determine if there is any swelling around the heart or lungs.

A patient is generally classified as having undifferentiated connective tissue disease when they have certain symptoms of a connective tissue disease but do not fulfil all of the diagnostic criteria for a particular disease. However, undifferentiated connective tissue disease may eventually evolve into a specific connective tissue disease such as scleroderma or Sjögren's Syndrome.

Treatment of Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease

There is no cure for UCTD. However, treatment usually follows a similar course of action as other rheumatic diseases. Most therapies will include some form of analgesics (pain killers) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen for joint and muscle pain. Topical corticosteroids, which are creams and lotions that have anti-inflammatory actions, can also be used to treat skin and mucous tissue symptoms. Occasionally if patients do not respond to the above treatments, a physician may prescribe low-dose corticosteroids in oral form for a short period of time.

Overall, patients with undifferentiated connective tissue disease have an excellent prognosis. In many patients, symptoms are mild and no real treatment is needed. It's unlikely that people with UCTD will progress to another more serious disease involving the kidneys, lungs, or brain and less than 20% will end up developing a well-defined connective tissue disease.

Now you know: what is undifferentiated connective tissue disease?

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Last Reviewed:
July 19, 2017
Last Updated:
October 25, 2017
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