Scleroderma, also known as systemic sclerosis, is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects various parts of the body. It’s characterized by the abnormal growth of connective tissue. This growth can lead to the thickening, hardening, and tightening of the skin. However, scleroderma is not solely a skin condition; it’s a systemic disease that can affect multiple organs, including the lungs, heart, kidneys, and digestive system.
This overview will explore five common signs and symptoms associated with scleroderma, shedding light on its diverse manifestations.
One of the primary signs of scleroderma is the characteristic skin changes that occur in affected individuals. Thickening and hardening of the skin, particularly in the fingers, hands, and face, are often observed. This is because the body produces more collagen than normal.
Collagen provides structure and support to the skin, but if it’s produced in excessive quantities, problems can occur. The skin may appear shiny, tight, and have a taut or mask-like appearance. Note that these skin issues often affect both sides of the body in a symmetrical manner. In some cases, individuals may develop ulcers or sores on the fingertips or other affected areas.
Raynaud’s phenomenon is frequently associated with scleroderma. This is a condition that’s characterized by the sudden constriction of blood vessels in response to cold or stress, resulting in reduced blood flow to the extremities. People with scleroderma often experience Raynaud’s phenomenon, which causes the fingers and toes to turn white or blue, feel numb or cold, and then turn red when blood flow returns. These episodes can last anywhere between a few minutes and several hours. Many patients with scleroderma may experience these symptoms even in temperatures that others would consider mild.
Scleroderma can manifest as joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. In this way, it may seem similar to arthritis. The small joints of the hands and feet are commonly affected, but larger joints may also be involved. Individuals may experience difficulties with joint mobility and daily activities due to the stiffness and pain associated with scleroderma. They may have aching or throbbing joints, which could become worse after periods of inactivity.
Scleroderma can affect the digestive system, leading to various gastrointestinal symptoms. Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is a common manifestation, which can make eating and drinking challenging, and bloating, diarrhea, and constipation may potentially occur. In some cases, scleroderma can lead to malabsorption of nutrients, resulting in weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.
Further, scleroderma can affect the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscular ring that controls the flow of food from the esophagus to the stomach. The LES may become weak or dysfunctional, allowing stomach acid and partially digested food to flow back into the esophagus.
This condition, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can cause heartburn, regurgitation, and a sour taste in the mouth. Long-term exposure of the esophagus to stomach acid can lead to inflammation, esophagitis, and the development of esophageal ulcers.
Scleroderma is a systemic disease that can affect internal organs, leading to significant health complications. The lungs, heart, kidneys, and blood vessels are among the organs commonly affected. Lung involvement can result in shortness of breath and a dry cough, while heart abnormalities can cause chest pain and palpitations. Kidney problems may manifest as high blood pressure or changes in urine output.
Additionally, blood vessel abnormalities can impair circulation and lead to other complications. And, while there is currently no cure for scleroderma, many people can live for a relatively long time with it. The ten-year scleroderma life expectancy is estimated to be around 90 percent. Remember, though, that every patient is different, and medical professionals will tailor their treatment to each individual patient.
Scleroderma is a complex autoimmune disease that affects multiple systems in the body. The five signs and symptoms discussed above – skin changes, Raynaud’s phenomenon, joint involvement, gastrointestinal issues, and organ involvement – highlight the diverse nature of scleroderma and its impact on individuals’ health and well-being.
Early diagnosis and comprehensive management are crucial for optimizing treatment outcomes. Plus, a strategic medical plan can work to improve the quality of life for those living with scleroderma.
If you suspect you may have scleroderma or experience concerning symptoms, seek medical attention for proper evaluation and guidance.