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There is much more to scleroderma than hardening and tightening of the skin. What do you need to know about the nature of this group of diseases, and about the symptoms, diagnostic process, and treatment?

Scleroderma is a group of diseases that can have a devastating impact on patients' lives. While it only affects the skin in some cases, major internal organs can be damaged and scleroderma can even become life-threatening in some cases. Here, we discuss the basics of the disease, its symptoms, the diagnostic process and treatment options. 

What Is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma means something like "hardening of the skin" in Latin. Involving hardening and thickening of the connective tissues that support the skin and internal organs, scleroderma can have far-reaching consequences. The cause of scleroderma is still unknown, though it is known to be an autoimmune condition associated with an overactive immune system. There appears to be some genetic component to scleroderma, but environmental factors are also thought to play a role.

Scleroderma can be divided into two categories:

  • A localized type of scleroderma, which tends to affect only skin tissues. While this type does not cause harm to internal organs, the skin damage that can result is so severe that the patient's quality of life may suffer severely. 
  • A systemic type that involves the skin as well as the underlying tissues and organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys. 
Subtypes can be found within these broad categories. The signs and symptoms a patient will experience vary depending on the type, the body parts affected, and the individual themselves. 

Scleroderma can strike anyone, including children. The localized type is most likely to present before age 40 and affects more Caucasians than black people. The systemtic type, meanwhile, affects women more often than men and is statistically more likely to affect African Americans. 

The Symptoms

Symptoms vary individually. The broad spectrum of possible symptoms affect nearly all of the body's systems, however — something that can make scleroderma truly devastating. 

Skin is almost always affected. This may show itself in the form of hardened, tightened areas of skin that can have various shapes. Patients may have a few of these patches, or many. The presence of these hardened and tightened areas of skin can restrict the patient's movement and make the skin appear shiny. 

However, despite the fact that the disease's name focuses on skin, its effects can reach far beyond that. Fingers and toes are often sensitive to cold temperatures and even stress, and become white in color. This is known as Raynaud's phenomenon and it also affects plenty of people who don't have sleroderma. Raynaud's phenomenon can be one of the earliest symptoms of scleroderma. 

The hard patches on the skin and swelling of surrounding joints can lead to joint stiffness and pain. Tight skin surrounding the mouth can make dental care a problem, and damage to the gum tissues may lead to tooth decay and premature tooth loss.

The digestive system can be affected by scleroderma as well — patients may suffer from heartburn as well as nutrient absorption problems, trouble swallowing, diarrhea, constipation and gas and feeling full after eating very small amounts of food. 

In severe cases, major internal organs including the heart, lungs and kidneys can be affected. This makes the condition life-threatening or some patients. Reduced lung function, pulmonary hypertension, arrhythmia, congestive heart failure, and renal crisis are all potential complications of some types of scleroderma. 

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