Scleroderma is actually a group of rare conditions that harden and tighten the skin and connective tissue. Connective tissues provide support to many parts of the body including skin, bones, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments, and other organs. In some individuals scleroderma only affects the skin, but it can also harm blood vessels, lungs, kidneys, and the digestive tract. Symptoms associated with scleroderma vary but may include hardened thickened skin especially on hands or face that appears smooth and shiny, upset digestive system (acid reflux, difficulty swallowing, diarrhea, or constipation), shortness of breath, cold fingers and toes (Raynaud’s disease), ulcers on fingertips, dry eyes or mouth (Sjogren’s syndrome), swelling of hands, small red spots on face and chest (telangiectasia), painful swollen joints and muscle weakness.
Scleroderma is caused by an overproduction and accumulation of a protein that makes up the connective tissues called collagen. Doctors do not know what causes large amounts of collagen to be made and built up in body tissue. Scleroderma is more common in women than in men and typically onsets between the ages of 30 and 50. Scleroderma is not contagious, infectious, or cancerous.
Scleroderma takes many forms and affects many different areas of the body, making it difficult to diagnose. A doctor may perform a physical exam along with blood tests, breathing tests, a CT scan, and an echocardiogram of your heart to diagnose scleroderma. While there is no cure for scleroderma, treatments can lessen symptoms and help prevent further complication. Therapies can also be used to help lessen pain and improve mobility. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with scleroderma, talk to your doctor about the most current treatment options. Support groups are also a good source of information and community support.