Learn about the causes of scleroderma symptoms such as dry, hard skin conditions.

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  1. What is Scleroderma?
  2. What Causes Scleroderma?
  3. Diagnosing Scleroderma
  4. Help for Scleroderma
  5. More Information on Scleroderma

What is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a rare but chronic condition that is characterized by the hardening of skin and connective tissues – it literally means hard skin. It belongs to a group of arthritic conditions known as connective tissue diseases in which an individual’s antibodies are directed against his or her own tissues. There are two types of scleroderma – localized and systemic scleroderma. Localized scleroderma usually begins with dry patches of skin on the hands or face which progressively becomes thicker and harder.

Systemic scleroderma, on the other hand, affects the blood vessels and internal organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, lungs, esophagus and gastrointestinal tract. Scleroderma most commonly occurs in people aged between 30-50 years and affects women more than men. There is no known cure for scleroderma and often this condition leads to depression and low self esteem.

The symptoms and signs of scleroderma include:
  • Thickening and hardening of the skin
  • Discoloration of the skin
  • Numbness, color changes and pain in cheeks, nose, ears, fingers and toes due to abnormal sensitivity to cold (Raynard’s phenomenon)
  • Swelling, stiffness or pain in joints, especially in fingers
  • Sores over joints
  • Digestive problems such as bloating, swallowing or abdominal pain
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Dry eyes
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Shortness of breath and coughing

What Causes Scleroderma?

The exact cause of scleroderma is not known. Scleroderma is a result of the overproduction of collagen in body tissues and researchers believe that the immune system plays a role in the development of this disease. The immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells which causes inflammation and an overproduction of collagen. It is also believed that genetic and environmental factors may also contribute to the development of scleroderma. Industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals such as silica dust, some plastic materials or rapeseed oil have been linked to scleroderma.

Diagnosing Scleroderma

Diagnosing scleroderma can be very difficult especially during the early stages because it is often mistaken for other connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Your physician will perform a physical examination as well as review your medical history. During the examination, the doctor will check for color changes in your skin, whether there are hardened and thickened areas in the skin and feel for any changes in the joints and tendons. Additional tests which include blood tests, a skin biopsy, chest x-ray, MRI or CT scan may also be performed to determine the diagnosis of scleroderma.

Help for Scleroderma

While there is no cure for scleroderma, a variety of treatment options can ease the symptoms of this condition. Individuals have to avoid developing infections and it is most likely that doctors will therefore administer an annual flu and pneumococcal vaccine. Topical medications such as moisturizers or corticosteroids are used to treat localized scleroderma.

If localized scleroderma progresses to a large area of the body such as an arm or leg, oral medications may also be prescribed. Various medications such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, calcium-channel blockers, immunosuppressants or ACE inhibitors are used to treat the symptoms of systemic scleroderma – improve circulation, control high blood pressure, reduce swelling and inflammation, promote digestive function and prevent kidney damage.

If symptoms become severe, surgery may be required to repair intestinal wall or stomach damage. Sometimes, infected fingers or toes may have to be amputated and in rare cases a kidney, heart or lung transplantation may be performed.

Alternative treatment options such as biofeedback and acupuncture are effective in easing the symptoms of scleroderma and releasing stress and anxiety. In addition, certain lifestyle changes such as eating smaller, well balanced meals more frequently, exercising regularly, avoiding exposure to cold, stress and smoking can also make a significant difference in an individual’s quality of life.

More Information on Scleroderma

Although scleroderma is a life-long disease, there are several ways to help you to manage your symptoms
  • Eat high fiber foods and eat more, smaller meals throughout the day that will not aggravate stomach problems
  • Avoid foods that cause heartburn or gas
  • Protect your joints by not placing too much strain on them – avoid lifting heavy objects or doing strenuous household chores
  • Exercise regularly to help keep your joints flexible and improve circulation as well as overall health and wellbeing
  • Keep your body warm and protected from cold air by wearing a hat, scarf, gloves and boots
  • Moisturize the skin with fragrance and alcohol free skin products particularly designed for dry skin
  • Install a humidifier in your home to keep the air moist
  • Educate yourself on the disease and keep up to date on information and services
  • Join a support group where you can share and express your feelings and experiences with others
  • Get adequate rest during the day and sleep at night
  • Stay close to family and friends
  • Stop smoking as it causes your blood vessels to narrow permanently
  • Reduce stress levels by learning relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga
  • Maintain a positive attitude and a commitment to moving forward with life
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