Scleroderma refers to a group of conditions that lead to abnormal connective tissue growth.1 In most cases, this causes hardening of the skin, but other complications can occur, such as damage to the blood vessels, digestive tract, and internal organs.2 It may also lead to joint and muscle pain or swelling.1 Scleroderma affects approximately 300,000 Americans.3
What Causes Scleroderma?
Hardening of the skin occurs when the body produces too much collagen, a protein that’s present in the skin. It’s believed that scleroderma is a type of autoimmune disease, which means the immune system mistakenly attacks its own body tissue.3 This leads to inflammation, which causes the body to produce extra collagen.3 However, it’s unclear what may trigger this type of response.
Women are three times more likely to get scleroderma than men, and it’s more likely to occur in people ages 20 to 50.3 Individuals of African or Native American descent are also at higher risk. Scleroderma is rare in children.
Scleroderma can affect how the digestive system functions. When food is no longer moving properly through the digestive system, patients with scleroderma may not absorb nutrients properly. Scleroderma can also lead to life-threatening kidney, heart, and lung problems.3
Scleroderma is diagnosed through a physical exam that may include blood tests or a skin biopsy.4 There is no cure for scleroderma, but there are a variety of treatments that can help control symptoms and prevent further complications.1 Medications may aim to reduce pain, dilate blood vessels, prevent infection, or suppress the immune system. In severe cases, surgery, such as amputations, may be required.
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