Scleroderma, also known as systemic sclerosis, is a group of rare diseases characterized by the hardening and tightening of the skin. It can also affect the blood vessels, internal organs, and digestive tract. The condition is chronic and autoimmune in nature, where the immune system prompts the production of excessive collagen, leading to the deposition of thick fibrous tissue in the skin and organs.
There are two main types of sclerodermas: localized and diffuse. Localized scleroderma, also called morphea, only affects the skin and typically appears as waxy patches or streaks. It tends to be less severe and may resolve without treatment. Diffuse scleroderma, on the other hand, affects multiple parts of the body, including the skin and internal organs. This form can be more serious, impairing digestive and respiratory functions and potentially leading to kidney failure.
Limited scleroderma, also known as CREST syndrome, is a subtype characterized by specific features represented by each letter of the acronym. It primarily affects the skin on the fingers, hands, forearms, feet, and legs. Limited scleroderma does not typically involve kidney problems, and digestive complications are mostly confined to the esophagus. However, there is a risk of developing pulmonary hypertension, a condition in which the arteries from the heart to the lungs narrow, resulting in high pressure on the right side of the heart and potential heart failure.
Although there is no cure for scleroderma, treatments aim to alleviate symptoms, slow down disease progression, and enhance quality of life. It is essential for individuals with scleroderma to receive appropriate medical care and monitoring, especially in cases of diffuse or limited scleroderma where there is a higher risk of severe organ involvement. Early detection and management of complications such as pulmonary hypertension can be crucial in ensuring better outcomes for patients.
The signs and symptoms of scleroderma differ from person to person based on the areas of the body that are affected.
Scleroderma typically manifests as a progressive tightening and hardening of the skin, affecting various areas of the body. Initially, it commonly affects the fingers, hands, feet, and face, and may also extend to the forearms, upper arms, chest, abdomen, lower legs, and thighs. Early symptoms may involve swelling and itching, while the affected skin can display changes in color, appearing either lighter or darker, and exhibiting a shiny appearance due to tightness. Additionally, individuals with scleroderma may develop small red spots called telangiectasia on their hands and face, and calcium deposits can form under the skin, particularly at the fingertips, resulting in visible bumps detectable on X–rays.
Scleroderma patients frequently have Raynaud’s phenomenon, which is brought on by an incorrect and excessive contraction of the tiny blood vessels in their fingers and toes in response to cold or emotional stress. The digits may turn white, blue, or red and become painful or numb when this occurs. People without scleroderma can also have Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Scleroderma has the potential to impact various components of the digestive system, encompassing the esophagus to the rectum. Symptoms experienced will vary based on the affected areas and can manifest as heartburn, challenges with swallowing, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or fecal incontinence.
Scleroderma, when it affects the heart or lungs, can lead to various symptoms including shortness of breath, reduced exercise capacity, and dizziness. The condition can cause scarring in the lung tissues, which gradually worsens over time and results in an increasing difficulty in breathing. Fortunately, there are medications available that can help slow down the progression of this lung damage.
Another complication that can arise from scleroderma is pulmonary hypertension, which refers to increased blood pressure in the circulation between the heart and lungs. Aside from causing shortness of breath, pulmonary hypertension can lead to the accumulation of excess fluid in the legs, feet, and sometimes around the heart.
Moreover, when scleroderma affects the heart, it can disrupt the regular heartbeat rhythm, leading to irregular heartbeats. Additionally, some individuals may develop heart failure as a consequence of this condition.
Scleroderma is a condition whose exact cause remains unknown. While there are instances where it can be inherited within families, the majority of cases do not have a family history of the disease. Importantly, it is crucial to note that scleroderma is not contagious.
The development of scleroderma stems from an excessive production and buildup of collagen in the body’s tissues, including the skin. Collagen is a type of fibrous protein that forms the connective tissues throughout the body. Although the precise trigger for this process is not yet understood, it is believed that the immune system’s functioning plays a role. It is likely that scleroderma arises from a combination of factors, including issues with the immune system, genetic predisposition, and environmental triggers.
Scleroderma can affect everyone, but women are far more likely to develop it than men are. Scleroderma risk appears to be influenced by a number of interrelated variables, including:
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