Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease affecting connective tissue (the tissue that connects joints, muscles, blood vessels and internal organs) in the body. The hallmark of scleroderma is hardening of the skin. Although scleroderma is currently not curable, treatment can help reduce symptoms.
What is scleroderma?
Scleroderma is an auto-immune condition, meaning the immune system attacks healthy tissue. Scleroderma involves overproduction of a protein called collagen in connective tissue. This results in hardening of the skin.
There are two types of scleroderma:
- Localised scleroderma, which only affects skin.
- Diffuse scleroderma, which affects internal organs or blood vessels as well as skin, also known as systemic sclerosis.
The symptoms of scleroderma vary according to which part of your body is affected. Thickening and hardening of the skin is typical, especially on the fingers, arms and face.
Another common symptom is Raynaud’s phenomenon, which is a blood circulation problem that causes your fingers or toes to change colour and feel numb or painful in the cold. Primary Raynaud’s develops without any underlying condition whereas secondary Raynaud’s is linked to underlying disease, such as scleroderma.
Your doctor may diagnose scleroderma from talking to you and examining you – they may also take a blood test and a small skin sample (biopsy).
There is currently no cure for scleroderma. However, treatment can improve symptoms. Medication can improve blood circulation, and suppress the immune system, which may slow disease progress. If your organs are affected, you may be referred to a specialist, such as a kidney specialist if your kidneys are affected.
Lifestyle changes may make it easier to live with scleroderma. These include:
- wearing gloves and socks to keep your hands and feet warm, to prevent Raynaud’s phenomenon
- avoiding cigarette smoke, as this affects blood circulation
- regular physical activity to help keep skin and joints flexible
- keeping skin moisturised and clean to prevent dryness and infection
- joining a support group such as those organised by Scleroderma Australia.
Last reviewed: August 2017