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How does scleroderma affect the skin?

Living with Scleroderma
Sarah Silverman performs at the Cool Comedy-Hot Cuisine benefit for the Scleroderma Research Council at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Sarah Silverman performs at the Cool Comedy-Hot Cuisine benefit for the Scleroderma Research Council at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Dale Wilcox/WireImage/Getty Images

Although scleroderma is a serious condition, proper diagnosis and treatment can make a world of difference to a person living with it. Research is still in its infancy, and no field of medicine exists yet that's dedicated solely to treating scleroderma. Most doctors who treat scleroderma are rheumatologists, physicians who specialize in caring for patients with arthritis. Some dermatologists or skin specialists also treat scleroderma.

Finding out whether or not someone has scleroderma in the first place can be tricky because some of the early symptoms aren't specific to this disease. Raynaud's phenomenon is a telltale sign of scleroderma. This is when a person's fingers or toes go numb, hurt and change color because of stress or cold weather. Swollen hands and tight, thick skin on the fingers or face are also indicators of this autoimmune disease. GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is yet another sign of scleroderma. Although GERD in and of itself is a pretty common condition, when it shows up along with other scleroderma symptoms like skin changes, it can mean that collagen is blocking portions of the digestive system, leading to a host of other problems.

As we learned earlier, scleroderma complications can go beyond simply interfering with one's quality of life; they can be deadly. What starts out as a symptom can progress into serious complications. GERD, for instance, can break down tooth enamel. And with scleroderma drying and hardening the gums and blocking saliva production, a person's teeth can fall out. Raynaud's phenomenon can destroy muscle and skin tissue and cause infection so severe that the fingers have to be amputated [source: Mayo Clinic]. Scleroderma can also prompt collagen buildup inside abdominal cavity, which can destroy the lungs and also cause kidney and heart failure.

There's no cure for scleroderma yet, but the good news is that localized scleroderma goes away on its own sometimes. Medicines can help manage scleroderma symptoms and complications. Some of them suppress the immune system. Others dilate the blood vessels to help with circulation in the fingers and toes and also protect the lungs and kidneys. Physical therapy can also help scleroderma patients stay mobile and learn ways to accomplish daily activities to stay independent. Ultraviolet light therapy and laser surgery can reduce the appearance of abnormal skin buildup.

Other things a person can do to manage scleroderma are exercise regularly, refrain from or quit smoking, manage heartburn and bundle up before going out in the cold. Putting on a glove before reaching into the refrigerator or freezer is a good idea, too. It's important to keep a healthy mental and emotional state. Getting proper rest, setting reasonable goals, keeping in touch with family and friends and joining a support group can help with this part. Professional counselors or therapists can also assist by teaching coping skills.

Get more information on scleroderma by exploring the links on the next page.