Scleroderma refers to a rare disease that is associated with hardening and tightening of skin and the connective tissue. In some people, only the skin may be affected but in the majority of patients, it causes harm to structures beyond the skin including blood vessels, digestive tract, and internal organs. The signs and symptoms primary vary depending on the structures or organs affected.
The symptoms of scleroderma usually vary depending on the type of the disorder and the extent in which it has affected internal structures and organs. Since scleroderma can affect the skin, blood vessels, esophagus, lungs, kidneys, bowels, and blood pressure, it may cause symptoms that affect many parts of the body. Below is a list of symptoms associated with scleroderma.
- Redness on skin
- Skin tightening or hardening
- Reduced range of motion in toes, fingers, and jaw
- Scarring of esophagus
- Difficulty swallowing
- Localized chest pain
- Blueness, redness or whiteness of fingers and toes
- Raynaud’s phenomena
- Shortness of breath
- Heart damage
- Inflammation around the heart
The exact cause of scleroderma is not known although medical researchers and scientists have involved the overproduction of collagen as one possible cause. While most patients may not have relatives with scleroderma, research also indicates that some genes may raise the chances of one developing scleroderma. But the gene by itself does not cause this disorder. It is also thought that when part of the immune system becomes overactive and gets out of control, it may cause scleroderma. In this case, the cells in connective tissue begin producing excess collagen that causes fibrosis or thickening and scarring of tissue. Nonetheless, it is not clear why people with scleroderma experience that abnormality.
Because scleroderma is likely to take different forms and affects various body parts, it is, at times, difficult to diagnose. Its diagnosis requires consultation with a rheumatologist or dermatologist. Depending on which body structures and organs are affected, it may require blood sample analysis or other specialized tests. A blood test may check of elevation of certain antibodies in the blood that are produced by the immune system. A biopsy may be conducted by removing a small tissue of affected skin to be examined in the laboratory for abnormalities. Other tests that may be done are pulmonary function test or breathing test as well as CT scan on lungs. An echocardiogram of the heart may also be conducted.
Given that heart failure is invariably a chronic condition, treatment options are directed toward alleviating associated symptoms as well as halting the course of the disease. This improves the quality of life for most patients.
- The patient’s lifestyle needs to be considered. Patients are recommended to reduce salt intake as this can exacerbate total blood volume; increasing the risk of swelling. Patients are also advised to exercise more, as a reduction in weight eases pressure off the heart.
- Medication is also considered. Drugs such as beta blockers have been shown to reduce mortality while, at the same time, alleviating associated symptoms. Other drugs, such as diuretics, may be employed to reduce total blood volume and, by extension, the demands of pumping on the heart.