Scleroderma: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disorder that causes hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues. Explore its causes, symptoms, and available treatment options.

Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disorder. It makes the body produce too much collagen. This leads to the hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues.1 It can affect several body parts, such as the skin, blood vessels, internal organs, and digestive tract. Scleroderma comes in two main types, “limited” and “diffuse,” depending on how much the skin is involved.1

Both types can cause vascular and organ problems. Although there’s no cure yet, there are treatments to manage symptoms and slow the disease. These treatments can also help improve life quality.1

Key Takeaways

  • Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disorder that causes excessive collagen production, leading to hardening and tightening of skin and connective tissues.
  • Scleroderma can affect various parts of the body, including the skin, blood vessels, internal organs, and digestive tract.
  • Scleroderma is categorized as “limited” or “diffuse” based on the degree of skin involvement, but both types can lead to vascular and organ problems.
  • While there is no cure for scleroderma, treatments can help manage symptoms, slow disease progression, and improve quality of life.
  • Scleroderma is estimated to affect around 250 out of every 1 million people in the U.S., with systemic scleroderma present in approximately 100,000 people.

What is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a rare group of autoimmune disorders. They make the skin and connective tissues harden and get tighter.2 It happens because the body makes too much collagen.2 Collagen is a protein in our connective tissues. This makes the skin and organs thicker, stiffer, and more fibrous.2 This condition is also labeled as an autoimmune disease. This means the body attacks itself by mistake.2

An Overview of the Condition

It can target the skin, blood vessels, organs, and digestive tract.2 The overproduction of collagen brings many symptoms. The symptoms and complications vary based on the parts affected.2 Knowing about scleroderma is key to help those with it.2 It helps in making life better for affected individuals.2

Systemic Sclerosis vs. Localized Scleroderma

Scleroderma is split into two types: systemic sclerosis and localized scleroderma.1 Systemic sclerosis impacts many organs. It can cause serious problems like lung and kidney issues.1 Localized scleroderma, on the other hand, mainly changes the skin. It creates thick areas but rarely harms internal organs.1

Types of Scleroderma

Scleroderma has three main types: diffuse sclerosis, limited sclerosis (also known as CREST syndrome), and sine sclerosis.1 Each type has its own traits and affects the body differently.

Diffuse Sclerosis

Diffuse sclerosis spreads quickly and hardens the skin over larger body areas. These areas include the chest, stomach, legs, arms, and face.1 It can lead to more internal organ damage than limited sclerosis.

Limited Sclerosis (CREST Syndrome)

Limited sclerosis, or CREST syndrome, is the most common.3 It progresses slowly, mainly affecting the fingers, hands, and face over years.4 The syndrome is known for five key symptoms: Calcinosis, Raynaud’s phenomenon, Esophageal dysfunction, Sclerodactyly, and Telangiectasia.4

Sine Sclerosis

Sine sclerosis is a rare type where organ problems occur without obvious skin hardening.13 Those with sine sclerosis might have Raynaud’s phenomenon and organ issues like limited sclerosis but won’t show skin changes.

Types of Scleroderma

Scleroderma Symptoms

Scleroderma has many symptoms, depending on which body parts it affects.2 The common signs include hardening skin, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and issues with digestion. It may also cause problems for the heart and lungs.

Skin-Related Symptoms

The skin often becomes hard and tight with scleroderma, starting in the fingers, hands, and face.2 It might look waxy or shiny. This can make it difficult to move those areas.

Raynaud’s Phenomenon

2 In scleroderma, Raynaud’s phenomenon happens; fingers and toes may turn white, blue, or red in the cold or when stressed. It’s because blood vessels narrow, cutting off blood to these areas.

Digestive Problems

1 The disease can affect the digestive system. This might lead to swallowing problems, heartburn, or trouble with the stomach. Also, it can cause diarrhea and problems absorbing nutrients. These issues result from the gut becoming thicker and less flexible.

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Heart and Lung Complications

1 Scleroderma might hurt the heart and lungs, too. Complications can include lung scarring, high blood pressure in the lungs, and irregular heartbeats. Without proper care, these problems can threaten life.

Causes of Scleroderma

The exact cause of scleroderma is not fully understood. However, it’s believed to come from a mix of issues. These include issues in the immune system and making too much collagen.2 Scleroderma is seen as an autoimmune issue. This means the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissues. The attack leads to too much collagen production. Collagen is a key protein in our connective tissues.2 Too much collagen makes the skin and organs thick, stiff, and fibrous.

Overproduction of Collagen

Too much collagen is a key issue in scleroderma.2 This extra collagen makes the skin and tissues hard and tight. How this overproduction starts isn’t fully known. It might be from a mix of genes and the environment.

Immune System Involvement

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease. The body’s immune system wrongly attacks healthy tissues.2 This problem with the immune system is a big part of why scleroderma happens. It causes too much collagen, which hurts the tissues and leads to fibrosis.2 People with scleroderma often have too many autoantibodies. These are antibodies that mistakenly target the body’s own cells and tissues.

Causes of scleroderma

Risk Factors for Scleroderma

Several factors might increase the chance of getting scleroderma. It is a complex issue where the skin and tissues become hard and tight. Knowing these risk factors can help control or even prevent this problem.


Our genes greatly affect the risk of getting scleroderma. Some gene differences can make you more likely to get it.2 If your close family has it, like a parent or sibling, your risk goes up a lot, about 13 to 19 times more.5 Also, certain types of scleroderma are seen more in some ethnic groups, hinting that genetics play a part.2

Environmental Triggers

Things in our environment, like certain substances or chemicals, could raise our scleroderma risk.2 For instance, breathing in silica is a known risk.5 But, the role of other things like organic solvents is not clear cut. Researchers still study their effect on scleroderma.5

Autoimmune Disorders

Scleroderma happens when the immune system attacks the body itself.2 People with other autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, might have a higher risk.2 Figuring out how the immune system is linked to scleroderma is important. This helps find risks and make better treatments.

Knowing these risks can help doctors and people watch for early signs of scleroderma. They can then use ways to prevent it and make specialized treatment plans to handle it well.

Complications of Scleroderma

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disorder that affects different parts of the body. It comes with serious complications that impact both health and life quality.2

Fingertip Damage

Scleroderma often causes issues in the fingertips. This damage is called digital ulcers or gangrene. It may lead to loss of sensation and even amputation in severe cases.2

Lung Scarring

If the lungs are affected, it can lead to scarring. This condition, known as pulmonary fibrosis, can make breathing harder. It causes high blood pressure in the lungs, a dangerous state called pulmonary hypertension.2

Kidney Failure

Scleroderma can harm the kidneys, possibly causing kidney failure. This complication needs immediate medical attention.2

Heart Problems

It can also lead to heart issues like muscle damage and abnormal rhythms. This effect can lower heart function and severely affect health.2

Dental Issues

Scleroderma might cause dental troubles. Issues like a stiff mouth or chewing problems can occur. It’s important to take care of your teeth and gums.2

Digestive Complications

Digestive issues are also possible, like trouble swallowing or heartburn. These problems can reduce life quality. Careful management is essential.2

Joint Mobility Restrictions

This disorder can lead to stiff joints and reduced movement. This makes daily activities difficult.2

Dealing with these complications is key to living well with scleroderma. Regular check-ups and early treatment are vital. Working with various healthcare experts can improve outcomes.2

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Diagnosing Scleroderma

Diagnosing scleroderma can be hard. This is because symptoms vary. It might affect many organs.6 Doctors use a full body check, blood tests, and other tests to diagnose it.

Physical Examination

The doctor observes skin, looking for tightness and swelling.7 They also check for Raynaud’s phenomenon. A patient’s detailed medical history is important too.

Blood Tests

Blood tests help find high levels of certain antibodies. These can show if someone has scleroderma.6 An ANA test is often done. But it can’t diagnose scleroderma alone.7

Imaging and Organ Function Tests

Other tests, like pulmonary function checks and CT scans, might be needed. They look at how scleroderma affects the heart, lungs, kidneys, and gut.67 The right treatment depends on the type and stage of scleroderma.7

Treatment Options for Scleroderma

Currently, there’s no cure for scleroderma. However, many treatments can comfort symptoms and enhance life quality.6 These include:


Doctors prescribe various drugs to manage scleroderma. These medicines can widen blood vessels, calm the immune system, and ease digestive issues.6 They also fight infections and reduce pain, tackling the disease from different angles.8


Therapies like physical or occupational therapy are crucial. They help improve movement, strength, and the ability to do daily tasks.6 Skin creams and other therapy types are also suggested for specific symptoms.8

Surgical and Other Procedures

In rarer cases, more serious treatments might be needed. For example, stem or organ transplants are considered for very severe situations.6 Since these steps are big, they are usually the last options. Sometimes, surgery might be needed, like in amputation for severe gangrene.8

Clinical trials offer a way to test and develop new treatments for scleroderma.6 Joining a trial can give patients access to new therapies. It also helps in pushing research forward.

Living with Scleroderma

Scleroderma is a chronic, autoimmune disease with no cure. However, lifestyle changes and home remedies can make life better for those affected.8

Staying Active

For patients, staying active is vital. It benefits joint movement, muscle strength, and health.8 Activities like stretching, yoga, and swimming are great. A physical therapist can help choose what’s best.

Skin Care

Scleroderma often makes the skin tight and hard.8 Using moisturizers and gentle soaps, and avoiding irritants, keeps skin healthy. This reduces any discomfort.

Avoiding Smoking

Smoking worsens symptoms, especially for the lungs and blood vessels.8 It’s vital to quit and stay away from secondhand smoke.

Managing Heartburn

The disease can cause heartburn and acid reflux.8 Sticking to a healthy diet, avoiding certain foods, and using meds when needed can help.

Protecting Against Cold

Cold weather can cause serious issues for those with scleroderma.8 To combat this, dress warmly, use warming devices, and limit time outside when it’s cold.

Coping and Support

Living with a condition like scleroderma is tough mentally. It’s vital to keep doing daily tasks, get help from pros, and be part of support groups.9

Maintaining Daily Activities

Even with the limits that scleroderma brings, staying active is key.9 Enjoying nature, music, or gardening can help a lot. It keeps life feeling normal for those with scleroderma.9

Seeking Professional Help

Getting help from health experts and therapists is encouraged.10 These pros can aid with coping methods and teach patient education.9 Plus, laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act ensure fair treatment.10

Joining Support Groups

Meeting others with scleroderma can make a big difference.9 It helps prevent function decline and lowers the risk of mental health issues.9 Having a strong support network is critical for managing the condition.10

Keeping up daily activities, reaching out to professionals, and joining support groups are powerful tools.910

Preparing for a Doctor’s Appointment

When preparing for a scleroderma doctor’s appointment, bring the right info for a good talk. This disorder can change your skin, tissues, and organs. So, managing and caring for it needs a full look.11

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First up, gather a health history, including any like diseases in your family. This helps the doctor understand your health and risks better.12 Also, write down symptoms to help diagnose and treat you.12

Tell the doctor about any skin changes, Raynaud’s phenomenon, digestive issues, or breathing trouble. Painting a clear picture of your health helps get a plan that fits you.11

Prepare for tests the doctor might order, like blood work and scans. These check the scleroderma effects and if there are issues.12 Knowing why and being ready makes this part smoother.

Lastly, be a big part of your care. Ask about your options and keep in touch with your doctor and team.12 Learning about scleroderma and staying updated helps you care for yourself and live better.12

Recommended PreparationBenefits
Compile a detailed medical historyHelps rheumatologists understand overall health and risk factors12
Keep a symptom journalAids in accurate diagnosis and treatment planning12
Be prepared to discuss all symptomsEnables tailored treatment based on individual needs11
Expect various diagnostic testsEvaluates disease extent and potential complications12
Actively participate in careEmpowers patients to take control of their health12


Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disorder. It’s complex and can greatly affect someone’s health and life quality.13 While there’s no cure, understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options is crucial. This knowledge helps develop effective ways to handle the disease.

About 250 cases per million people have scleroderma. It’s seen more in women than in men.14 The disease shows up in women aged 30 to 50. It affects various body parts, like the skin, blood vessels, and organs.14

To fight scleroderma’s challenges, healthcare teams and patients can join forces. They create personalized treatment plans. These plans cater to the unique needs of those with this connective tissue disease. A team effort can help manage symptoms, slow down the disease, and boost life quality.


What is scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disorder. It makes the body produce too much collagen. This leads to the skin and connective tissues hardening and tightening. It affects skin, blood vessels, organs, and the digestive system.

What are the main types of scleroderma?

The three main types are diffuse sclerosis, limited sclerosis (CREST syndrome), and sine sclerosis.

What are the common symptoms of scleroderma?

Common symptoms include hardening of the skin, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and digestive issues. It also causes problems with the heart and lungs.

What causes scleroderma?

The exact cause is not fully known. Experts think it happens when the immune system and collagen overproduce.

What are the risk factors for scleroderma?

Risk factors include certain genes, environmental triggers, and the presence of other autoimmune diseases.

What are the potential complications of scleroderma?

Scleroderma can lead to many problems. These include damage to the fingertips, lung scarring, and kidney problems. Heart issues, dental problems, and joint difficulties are also risks.

How is scleroderma diagnosed?

Diagnosis involves a physical exam, blood tests, and imaging studies. Doctors also check organ function to confirm the condition.

What are the treatment options for scleroderma?

Treatments include medications, therapies, and surgeries. The goal is to manage symptoms, slow down the disease, and improve life quality.

How can someone with scleroderma manage their condition at home?

Staying active, taking care of skin, not smoking, managing heartburn, and staying warm help in managing the conditions at home.

How can someone with scleroderma cope and find support?

To cope, it’s important to keep up with daily life, get professional help, and connect with others going through the same thing in support groups.

What should someone do to prepare for a scleroderma doctor’s appointment?

Get ready for the appointment by bringing info about your symptoms and medical history. Also, have any questions or concerns ready to ask.

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