Goodskin Dermatology

Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment for Scleroderma

You’ve noticed calcifications on your fingers. You’ve become sensitive to immediate cold exposure. Your joints ache. Could you be experiencing an autoimmune disease?

Although your brain might immediately jump to a more common chronic condition, Raynaud’s phenomenon, you might actually be suffering from a rare autoimmune disease — scleroderma. 

Learn about scleroderma, including symptoms, causes, how it’s treated, and what factors might put you at risk.

Table of Contents

scleroderma treatments

What Is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a chronic disease that affects many parts of the body, including mental health. Those with this autoimmune condition produce too much collagen, resulting in many symptoms that affect the tissue throughout the body. In worst cases, scleroderma may lead to life-threatening complications.

Although scleroderma is a rare condition, experts estimate around 250 out of every one million people in the United States have been diagnosed with some type of scleroderma. Having a reliable support team to help manage the challenges that come with this condition is important, and Goodskin Dermatology can help. 

Scleroderma can not only make it difficult to perform everyday tasks, but it could change your appearance, too. Although not curable, working alongside a trusted and experienced dermatologist can help make all the difference in managing your scleroderma symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of Scleroderma?

Healthcare professionals typically classify scleroderma into two main types:

  • Localized scleroderma: This means the scleroderma is concentrated in one area, usually the skin. It usually causes thick, waxy patches or streaks on the skin and most often does not spread to other areas of the body. Localized scleroderma may resolve on its own.
  • Systemic sclerosis: This means the scleroderma has affected other organs, in addition to your skin. It might spread to the respiratory system or digestive system, causing additional issues and serious complications. There are three subtypes:
  • Diffuse sclerosis: This means the scleroderma is widespread, causing thickened skin over larger areas all at once, including the chest, abdomen, thighs, legs, arms, and face. It might also affect multiple organs at once.
  • Limited sclerosis: This is defined by CREST — calcinosis, Raynaud’s syndrome, esophageal dysfunction, sclerodactyly, and telangiectasias.
  • Sine sclerosis: Symptoms are similar to limited sclerosis, but this type doesn’t affect your skin. 

Specific symptoms are dependent on the type of scleroderma you might be experiencing. However, most people see changes to their skin as the first symptoms. 

If you’re experiencing skin changes, sudden and unexplainable weight loss, fatigue, tightening or hardening of the skin and the connective tissue underneath it, high sensitivity to the cold, or trouble moving, consider consulting a dermatologist right away.

At Goodskin Dermatology, we offer a full-body screening to examine symptoms and help find the underlying cause of the changes in your body. Contact us today.

Localized Scleroderma Symptoms

Localized scleroderma affects only one part of the body — in most cases, the skin. You might notice symptoms like:

  • Thickening and swelling of the fingers
  • Pale fingers that become numb or tingle, similar to Raynaud’s phenomenon
  • Joint pain
  • Taut, shiny, darker skin on large areas
  • Limited mobility or immobile fingers, wrists, or elbows

Systemic Scleroderma Symptoms

 Systemic forms of scleroderma involve internal organs, so symptoms might appear as:

  • Calcium bumps on your fingers or other bony areas, like elbows or knees
  • Sores on your fingertips or knuckles
  • A grating noise when you move inflamed joints and tissues
  • Problems with your esophagus
  • Heartburn or trouble swallowing
  • Heart failure or abnormal heart rhythms
  • Scarring of the lungs
  • Shortness of breath
  • High blood pressure

What Causes Scleroderma?

It has yet to be proven what might cause scleroderma, but studies have found that it can run in families. However, scleroderma is still rare enough that it has not been defined as a true genetic disorder.

Other factors, like environmental exposure, likely have a role.

Genetic Disposition

Although no single gene causes scleroderma, it is considered to be a disease of genetic inheritance. Rather than one single gene being the culprit, many genes are involved, also increasing the risk of developing other autoimmune diseases.

If you or someone in your family has scleroderma, it is rare that another immediate family member will also have scleroderma, but it is likely they’ll be diagnosed with another autoimmune disease.

Environmental Factors

In some cases, scleroderma has been caused by environmental triggers, like exposure to silica dust or polyvinyl chloride.

Similar to other autoimmune diseases, there often isn’t one single environmental trigger. Multiple environmental factors influence the immune system, so the same is likely true for scleroderma.

Risk Factors

Anyone can develop scleroderma, but some people have a higher risk than others, including:

  • Those assigned female at birth (four times more likely than those assigned male)
  • People 30-50 years old
  • Black people
  • Those with a first-degree relative with an autoimmune disease
  • Those exposed to certain chemicals, drugs, or viral infections

How Is Scleroderma Diagnosed?

Scleroderma can be difficult to diagnose. It can take on so many forms and affect so many areas of the body that it might easily be mistaken as another condition or overlooked entirely. 

To receive a proper diagnosis, visit a dermatologist who is experienced with treating many skin conditions. You’ll receive a thorough physical exam and possibly undergo additional testing like blood work to check for elevated levels or organ-function tests to check your digestive system, heart, lungs, and/or kidneys.

How Is Scleroderma Treated?

Scleroderma cannot be cured, and the overproduction of collagen cannot be stopped, but a variety of scleroderma treatments can help control symptoms, manage pain, and prevent complications.

Depending on your exact diagnosis and symptoms, your care team might recommend medications, therapies, surgery, procedures, or a combination of these treatments for scleroderma.

*Please note that treatments may vary depending on the condition and individual patient. Always consult with your healthcare provider to see which scleroderma treatment is recommended.*

Medications

Scleroderma can affect many parts of the body, so a variety of medications might be suggested depending on the symptoms. 

Typically, medical treatment for scleroderma includes drugs like:

  • Blood pressure medications that dilate the blood vessels.
  • Those that suppress the immune system, similar to what is used after an organ transplant, to help reduce the progression of scleroderma symptoms.
  • Pills to reduce digestive symptoms and relieve heartburn, reduce bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
  • Those that prevent infections, including regular vaccinations. 
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription medications if those don’t help.
  • Medicinal lotions or skin moisturizers.
treatment for scleroderma

Therapies

Different therapy options might be considered to help manage symptoms like immobility, tightening of connective tissues, and strength. It may be recommended for you to visit a physical or occupational therapist for these modalities, or pursue hand therapy to help prevent hand contractures.

Light therapy uses a focused UV light to treat skin conditions and may be beneficial for treating the thickened skin that occurs in those with scleroderma.

Surgery and Procedures

For those suffering from severe symptoms of scleroderma, surgery or other procedures might be necessary. 

For example, for those with severe symptoms that have not responded well to other treatment options, a stem cell transplant might be a good option for improving bodily functions.

In cases where the lungs or kidneys have been severely damaged, an organ transplant might also be considered.

Goodskin Dermatology Provides High-Quality, Patient-Based Care for Scleroderma

With the proper diagnosis and treatment plan in place, many people with scleroderma can expect to live a normal life. Confiding in a trusted and experienced dermatologist can help get you on track and create a plan for monitoring your condition through plateaus, life changes, and more.

Goodskin Dermatology is a multi-location dermatology clinic that offers services for many skin conditions, including scleroderma. If you’re experiencing unusual or unwanted symptoms, visit Goodskin Dermatology right away for an evaluation, proper diagnosis, and treatment plan.

Contact us to get started.

The content in this blog should not be used in place of direct medical advice/treatment and is solely for informational purposes.