Scleroderma means ‘hard skin’ and describes a rare, chronic, and progressive autoimmune disease that causes patches of tight, hard skin. Some forms of the condition can also damage blood vessels, joints, and internal organs, such as the digestive system, lungs, heart and kidneys.
Scleroderma causes excess collagen, a protein which normally gives connective tissue its strength. Too much causes hardening and tightening of the affected area.
Localised scleroderma (sometimes called ‘morphea’) only affects the skin and the tissues underneath it, but does not develop into systemic sclerosis which affects other parts of the body as well.
Symptoms vary from person to person, depending on what part of the body is involved. They may include:
- Raynaud’s phenomenon – the fingers or toes turn white, then blue in the cold. It is possible to have Raynaud’s without scleroderma but it’s often one of the first symptoms to appear.
- thick, hard skin on the hands, arms and face
- small red spots or spider veins on the face, lips, fingers and palms (due to damaged blood vessels)
- stiffness and pain in the muscles and joints
- small white chalky lumps (calcium deposits) under the skin
- digestive troubles – indigestion, heartburn, diarrhoea or constipation
- shortness of breath.
Anyone can get scleroderma but it is more common in adult women, usually starting between the ages of 25 and 55. It is thought to be due to a mix of genetic and environmental factors.
skleros means hard
derma means skin
How can I manage my scleroderma?
There is no cure for scleroderma, although many treatments are available for specific symptoms. Your doctor may need to trial different treatments and medicines before finding the right one for you.
The type of medication you take will depend on what part of your body is affected. Your doctor may prescribe creams for your skin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) for joint pain or medicines for gastrointestinal problems.
You can take an active part in managing your scleroderma, together with your doctor and healthcare team. Here are some suggestions for ways to look after yourself:
- Exercise helps to keep your joints flexible and improve blood flow. Your physiotherapist can design a programme to protect your skin and joints.
- Manage Raynaud’s phenomenon by avoiding exposure to cold and sudden temperature changes. Keep your whole body warm and protect your hands and feet with gloves and warm socks.
- Look after your skin. Avoid strong detergents that can irritate your skin, and keep it clean and moisturised to prevent dryness and infection.
- Avoid smoking as this reduces blood flow to the skin.
- Manage stress by making sure you get sufficient rest and relaxation and balance work and leisure. Talk to others about your condition or link up with the New Zealand scleroderma society www.scleroderma.org.nz.
- A healthy diet is important for maintaining general health and wellbeing. Frequent small meals may help if you have trouble with swallowing or heartburn.