How does scleroderma affect the skin?

Skin Problems Image Gallery Scleroderma can tighten and harden the tender skin on hands, making it difficult to move one's fingers. See more pictures of skin problems.
Skin Problems Image Gallery Scleroderma can tighten and harden the tender skin on hands, making it difficult to move one's fingers. See more pictures of skin problems.

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disorder that affects the largest organ of the body -- the skin. This disease is similar to arthritis in that it causes pain and can sometimes be crippling. Whereas arthritis attacks cartilage, which is the tissue connecting the joints, scleroderma has to do with the overproduction of collagen, which is the tissue connecting the skin. Scleroderma can even affect some vital organs.

There are two main types of scleroderma: localized and systemic. Localized scleroderma affects just the skin. Milder cases involve patches or bands of tight, shiny skin in any number of places, such as the elbows, arms or shins. More severe cases may cause the skin on a person's face to become so stiff that it makes him or her have difficulty smiling, laughing, talking or chewing food. Coupled with dry mouth, these symptoms make brushing one's teeth painful, if not nearly impossible, which aggravates tooth decay and can cause gum disease. With localized scleroderma, a person's hands can also become deformed. The skin hardens and tightens, making it difficult to move the fingers. Systemic scleroderma, on the other hand, also impacts organs like the lungs, heart and kidneys and can be life-threatening. In either case, as symptoms become more prominent, everyday tasks can be challenging.


As with other autoimmune disorders, no one knows yet what causes scleroderma, although researchers link certain environmental factors to it. You can't catch it from another person, but some people suspect that exposure to silica dust and industrial chemicals like paint thinners, as well as some chemotherapy medications trigger the onset of this disorder. Most people with scleroderma receive a diagnosis between the ages of 40 and 50, but it may occur in childhood or much later in life. Gender also plays a role; females are four times as likely as males to develop the disease. Genetics may or may not determine who gets scleroderma. For some reason, people of certain ancestry in the United States, including the Oklahoma Choctow Indians (but not those in Mississippi), are extremely prone to developing scleroderma, and African-Americans are more likely to get it than those of European descent [source: Mayo Clinic].

Learn about living with scleroderma in the next section.



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.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • A.D.A.M. "Scleroderma." 2010. (May 16, 2010).
  • BBC. "Gene clue to fatal skin disease." Oct. 3, 2003. (May 20, 2010).
  • Scleroderma Foundation. "What is scleroderma?" 2010. (May 16, 2010).
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). "Scleroderma." Oct. 17, 2008. (May 16, 2010).
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. "Scleroderma." May 18, 2010. (May 18, 2010).
  • WebMD. " Pain Management Health Center: Scleroderma." March 1, 2007. (May 16, 2010).