Scleroderma is a group of rare diseases that involve the hardening and tightening areas of the skin and connective tissues that provide the framework and support for the body. Scleroderma is an autoimmune condition, which means the body attacks its own tissues. In some people, scleroderma affects only the skin. But in many people, scleroderma also harms the blood vessels, internal organs and the digestive tract. There is no cure for this disease, but most people can lead a full, productive life.
Scleroderma's symptoms vary, depending on which parts of the body are involved. If the skin is affected, nearly everyone experiences a hardening and tightening of patches that may be shaped like ovals or straight lines. The number, location and size of the patches vary by type of scleroderma. Skin can appear shiny because it is so tight, and movement of the affected area may be restricted.
If the affected area are the fingers and toes, then the sign is an exaggerated response to cold temperatures or emotional distress, which can cause numbness, pain or color changes in the fingers or toes.
If the Scleroderma affects the digestive system, in addition to acid reflux, some people may also have problems absorbing nutrients if their intestinal muscles are not moving food properly through the intestines.
Lastly, if the heart, lungs or kidneys are affected, then the scleroderma can cause life-threatening effects.
The exact cause of scleroderma is not known. Researchers have found some evidence that certain genes are important hereditary factors, but the environment seems to also play a role. The fact that genes seem to cause a predisposition to developing scleroderma means that inheritance at least plays a partial role. It is not unusual to find other autoimmune diseases in families of scleroderma patients.
Scleroderma results from an overproduction and accumulation of collagen in body tissues. Although doctors are not sure what prompts this abnormal collagen production, the body's immune system appears to turn against the body, producing inflammation and the overproduction of collagen.
Scleroderma affects women more often than men and most commonly occurs between the ages of 30 and 50. While there is no cure for scleroderma, a variety of treatments can ease symptoms and improve quality of life.
Scleroderma complications range from mild to severe and can affect the:
- Fingertips (restricted blood flow permanently damages the tissue at the fingertips, causing pits or ulcers);
- Lungs (reduced lung function, reduced ability to breathe and reduced tolerance for exercise);
- Kidneys (elevated blood pressure and an increased level of protein in the urine);
- Heart (increased risk of arrhythmias and congestive heart failure);
- Digestive system (acid reflux and difficulty swallowing);
- Sexual function (erectile dysfunction or decreased sexual lubrication and constricting the vaginal opening).
There is no prevention method or diet to avoid or decrease the risk of scleroderma.