Scleroderma is a chronic connective tissue disease generally classified as an autoimmune rheumatic disease that causes a hardening of the skin, according to the Scleroderma Foundation. It is not contagious or cancerous and involves an overproduction of collagen in the skin. There are two classifications of scleroderma, localized scleroderma and systemic sclerosis (SSc), both with sub-classifications that contain their own characteristics.
Localized Scleroderma is relatively mild and is usually found in only a few places on the skin or muscles. This classification of scleroderma rarely spreads and typically does not affect internal organs. One sub-classification of localized scleroderma is Morphea. Waxy patches on the skin characterize Morphea and the skin underneath these patches may thicken. Linear scleroderma is another form of localized scleroderma. It typically starts as a streak of waxy skin on an arm, leg or forehead. Linear scleroderma often involves deeper layers of the skin and sometimes affects the motion of the joints.
Systemic sclerosis affects the connective tissue in several parts of the body, including the skin, blood vessels, muscles, joints, esophagus, gastrointestinal tract, lungs, kidneys, heart and other internal organs. The tissue of the involved parts of the body begin to harden and become fibrous, limiting their functions. System sclerosis can take one of two patterns- diffuse or limited. In diffuse scleroderma, skin thickening occurs rapidly and in more areas on the body. Limited scleroderma develops slowly and skin thickening is typically confined to the fingers, hands and face.
The cause of scleroderma is still unknown but medical researchers do know that it involves the immune system turning against the body and producing inflammation and an overproduction of collagen in the skin. Unfortunately, there is no cure for scleroderma at this time. However, there are many treatments to help symptoms of the disease, including heartburn. There are also treatments available to decrease the activity of the immune system and to help manage pain. In some severe cases, transplants and amputations may be necessary.
Proper diagnosis of scleroderma can be difficult because it can take many forms and affect several different parts of the body. If you or a loved one is concerned about scleroderma, blood tests to check for elevated levels of certain antibodies produced by the immune system should be administered after a thorough physical exam. The doctor might also remove a small tissue sample of your affected skin so that it can be examined. Some doctors might also administer breathing tests, a CT scan of the lungs and an echocardiogram of the heart.
Jaime Venditti, State Coordinator, New York Health Works