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.

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.