What is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a connective tissue disorder that is classified as an autoimmune rheumatic disease. The term comes from the Greek language and means “hard” and “skin.” The disease is not cancerous, nor is it contagious or infectious. While rare, scleroderma normally presents itself between a person’s 30s and 50s, and causes connective tissue and skin to harden and tighten.

The condition impacts 75,000 to 100,000 people in the United States and occurs in women more often than men. While the skin is often harmed, the symptoms of scleroderma can also impact the organs, digestive tract, and blood vessels. Properly diagnosing scleroderma will allow for rapid treatment.

How is Scleroderma Diagnosed?

what is scleroderma close up of doctor diagnosing a patient in doctors office with med cart in background

Scleroderma is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be very similar to other diseases. Blood tests may indicate the presence of certain antibodies associated with the condition, but a doctor will often:

  • Ask you a series of questions including questions about your family history
  • X-rays or lab tests may be required
  • A physical exam will also be conducted
  • Small skin samples may be taken and examined further in a laboratory

X-rays or a CT scan will be able to detect abnormalities and can help identify differences in skin temperature that may help with diagnosis. The doctor will also look for thickening or swelling of the skin, blood vessels in the hands or face for enlarging, calcium deposits, high blood pressure, joint pain, and a variety of other issues.

When diagnosing scleroderma, there are two main types:

  1. Localized. A localized diagnosis is ideal because the condition will only affect the skin, but it may spread to the bones, joints, and muscles.
  2. Systematic. The systematic diagnosis includes all of the localized issues along with spreading to the organs.

Researchers still don't know what causes scleroderma, but it’s thought that genetic issues lead to an increased risk of the condition. Certain chemical and toxic exposures may also play a role in the development of the disorder, but this is only exhibited in a small number of people.

The condition is a result of the accumulation or overproduction of collagen in the body’s connective tissue and skin.

What are the Symptoms of Scleroderma?

The symptoms experienced can vary from person to person, and the area of the body affected can vary. Symptoms of scleroderma include:

  • Skin hardening and tightening. Almost everyone that suffers from this condition has skin that tightens and hardens. The affected skin occurs in patches and is often in a straight line or oval. Due to the tightening, the skin may look “shiny.”
  • Digestive problems. Scleroderma can cause heartburn, make swallowing difficult, cause cramping, constipation, diarrhea and make it hard for your body to absorb nutrients. Foods will often not move through the body properly. Esophageal reflux and hair loss can also occur.
  • Organ issues. Multiple organs can suffer from damage and may even lead to life-threatening conditions. The most common issues affect the kidneys, lungs, and heart.

Another symptom is the development of Raynaud’s disease, but the disease can also occur on its own. The blood vessels in the finger and toes can contract, causing your digits to turn blue, numb, or cause pain.

One of the most common issues is diagnosing scleroderma. Rheumatologists are often required to diagnose the condition because multiple conditions can cause similar symptoms.

Treating Scleroderma

what is scleroderma doctor treating a patient for scleroderma in doctors office

For some people, the condition will only last two to five years and will disappear on its own when only affecting the skin. If the organs are impacted, the condition is likely to continue worsening over time.

Preventing the production of collagen is not something that current medical treatments can offer. Instead, doctors will do their best to recommend medications that can help you control your symptoms and prevent complications from occurring.

Common medications include:

  • Steroids to reduce joint pain and swelling
  • Blood pressure medication
  • Immune system suppressants
  • Antibiotics
  • Stomach acid reducing pills
  • Pain relievers
  • Antibiotic ointments

Of course, your doctor will determine the best form of treatment for you. There are a lot of scleroderma natural remedies that will not cure the condition, but they can help reduce pain and swelling. A few of the natural remedies to help with symptoms of scleroderma are:

  • CBD - A 2020 study found that CBD’s analgesic agents may help alleviate pain from rheumatic diseases with limited adverse side effects. Cannabinoids are also being studied, with clinical trials underway, to determine if targeting the endocannabinoid system can help alleviate the symptoms of scleroderma.
  • DMSO - DMSO has been studied with mixed results. DMSO may or may not improve the condition, but it remains a powerful anti-inflammatory and helps increase the absorption of other medications and remedies. DMSO can be mixed with essential oils or other ingredients to improve their effectiveness.
  • Turmeric - A natural anti-inflammatory, turmeric can help alleviate pain and swelling, although it can increase the risk of bleeding for anyone on blood thinners.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids - A 1989 study suggests that fish oils can improve the cold exposure tolerance of a person and also delay the onset of symptoms. Blood pressure in the fingers and toes also increased, helping alleviate the symptoms relating to Raynaud’s phenomenon.
  • Probiotics - A probiotic supplement may help reduce symptoms of digestive distress and bloating. Be sure to ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to take 5-to-10 billion CFU probiotics.

Managing your symptoms and following the recommended treatment options can help improve quality of life.

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