Scleroderma is a chronic and rare disease resulting in the hardening and tightening of the affected person’s connective tissues and skin. It is a group of diseases affecting women more than men. It commonly occurs in people between the ages of thirty and fifty. You need to understand that no cure is available for chronic illness. It also affects people in different ways. While some people see only issues with their skin, others can see structural damage beyond their skin. So, it affects their internal organs, blood vessels, and digestive tract. Depending on the type, you can experience different symptoms. The term is derived from Greek where Sclero means hard and derma means skin.
Symptoms Of Scleroderma
When you suffer from scleroderma, the signs can vary from one person to another. You can see symptoms based on the part of the body the condition affects. So, you can observe the following:
Skin Problems Due To Scleroderma
All people suffering from the chronic autoimmune disease experience hardening of the skin. So, affected people observe the tightening of the skin in patches. These patches look like a straight line or oval shapes. It covers wide areas of your limbs and trunk. The number of patches, location, as well as, the size of the patches varies with the types of the chronic autoimmune disease you suffer. People affected by the problem have shiny skin due to tightening. This can also cause the restriction of movement in the affected area.
You develop Raynaud’s disease when you suffer from chronic autoimmune disease. So, it results in the contraction of small blood vessels present in your fingers and toes as a response to emotional distress or cold temperatures. When such a thing happens, it turns your toes and fingers blue, numb, or trigger pain.
This condition can also trigger diverse digestive signs depending on the part of the digestive tract it affects. So, you can observe the following:
Scleroderma Affecting Esophagus
If your esophagus is affected, then you can experience trouble swallowing food or heartburn.
When your intestines suffer, then you can experience the following signs:
- Malnutrition (due to weakness in the intestinal muscles causing problems while absorbing nutrients due to improper movement of food through the intestines)
Other Vital Organs
The condition can also affect the function of vital organs like the heart, kidney, or lungs. Based on the severity, you can see symptoms of varying degrees. Without prompt medical treatment, the condition can cause fatal, life-threatening complications.
Causes Of Scleroderma
Scleroderma is a chronic condition developing due to the overproduction as well as accumulation of collagen in your body tissues. Collagen makes up the connective tissues. It is the fibrous type of protein making up your skin. So, due to the abnormal collagen production, you suffer from several issues, especially in the connective tissues. The underlying reason for abnormal collagen production remains unclear. But, your body’s immune system plays a role in abnormal collagen production and accumulation. A combination of factors like genetics, environmental triggers along with your immune system results in the condition.
Risk Factors Associated With Scleroderma
Anyone can develop chronic autoimmune disease. But, the condition is more prevalent in some people compared to others. The different factors influencing the risk of developing the condition are:
The condition is more common in women compared to men.
People with specific gene variations are more likely to suffer from chronic autoimmune disease. So, the condition may run in families. It is observed that certain ethnic groups are more likely to develop the condition compared to others. Some specific types of chronic autoimmune diseases are observed in such ethnic groups. For example, the type of chronic autoimmune disease affecting the internal organs is more prevalent in the Choctaw Native American tribe.
When you are exposed to environmental triggers like taking certain drugs or medication or viral exposure can result in chronic autoimmune disease. Some people working in an environment that exposes them to harsh chemicals or other harmful substances can increase the risk of developing a chronic autoimmune disease.
Problems With Immune System
Chronic autoimmune disease is an autoimmune disease. So, it indicates that you develop the condition as a result of your immune system attacking connective tissues in your body. In a small percentage of people (15%-20%), the person suffering from chronic autoimmune disease suffers from symptoms of another autoimmune disease like Sjogren’s syndrome, lupus, or arthritis.
Complications Due To Scleroderma
Scleroderma is a chronic illness that causes mild to severe complications. It affects several parts of the body. Here are some of the issues people with chronic autoimmune disease endure:
Due to the chronic autoimmune disease, you can develop Raynaud’s disease. The condition can become severe and result in permanent blood flow restriction. So, it can cause tissue damage, especially on the fingertips. This results in developing skin sores or pits. In some cases, the tissue on your fingertips dies. It leads to amputation.
Reduced lung function occurs due to the scarring of the lung tissue. It affects the breathing as well as your tolerance for physical work (like exercise). The condition also results in the development of high blood pressure in the lung arteries.
When you suffer from chronic autoimmune disease, it can affect your kidneys. It results in increased blood pressure as well as high levels of protein in the urine. In some people, serious complications like a sudden increase in blood pressure, renal crisis, and rapid kidney failure can occur.
The condition can result in scarring of heart tissues. It can lead to an increased risk of congestive heart failure, abnormal heartbeats, and congestive heart failure. The condition also results in the inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. It also increases the pressure on the right side of the heart. As time progresses, it wears out your heart.
You can suffer from dental problems due to the condition. The chronic condition can result in severe tightening of your skin around the mouth. It can make your mouth become narrower and smaller. So, it becomes hard to brush your teeth. You will also find it difficult to undergo professional cleaning by a dentist. You also experience dry mouth due to the inability to produce normal amounts of saliva. It can lead to dental decay or cavities.
Due to the digestive problem developing with the chronic autoimmune disease, you can experience trouble swallowing and heartburn. So, can also experience other signs like:
- Bouts of cramps
While women suffer the condition more, it also affects men. Men with chronic autoimmune disease experience complications like erectile dysfunction. Women who develop the condition see reduced sexual function as they find intercourse painful due to decreased vaginal lubrication as well as constriction of the vaginal opening.
Scleroderma can affect your body in different ways and in different areas. Since it takes different forms, it becomes difficult to diagnose the condition. When you see the different symptoms, see a doctor immediately. Here are the following methods to detect chronic autoimmune disease:
After a thorough physical exam, your doctor may suggest blood tests to check for elevated levels of certain antibodies produced by the immune system. He or she may also remove a small sample of your affected skin so that it can be examined in the laboratory.
Blood tests alone cannot detect the problem conclusively. In most cases, the doctor conducts other tests along with a blood test (ANA test) to diagnose the problem. The elevated levels of antinuclear antibodies, the immune factors (it is elevated in 95% of the chronic autoimmune disease patients) indicate the presence of the condition. Your doctor orders other tests along with blood tests because elevate levels of antinuclear antibodies can occur in patients suffering from autoimmune diseases like lupus. So, other tests are ordered along with it to detect the condition conclusively.
Breathing Tests/Pulmonary Function Tests
Your doctor also orders breathing tests or pulmonary function tests to measure the working of your lungs.
CT Chest Scan
The cross-sectional images of the chest can help evaluate the damage caused by the chronic autoimmune disease to the lungs.
The electrocardiogram is a test suggested by the doctor to see any changes in your heart muscle tissue. Due to the chronic autoimmune disease, you can suffer from abnormal rhythms as well as damage to the heart muscles. EKG/ECG records the electrical activity of your heart. So, it can show any abnormalities in your heart function.
The test uses sound waves to show the structure of your heart. So, the pictures of your heart, including that of your valves can detect the damage of heart structure or abnormalities of its function.
Tests like x-rays or other imaging techniques can show any changes occurring in the soft tissue or bones due to the chronic autoimmune disease. A small amount of radiation helps take pictures of your bones, internal tissues, and organs.
Motility studies help assess the gastrointestinal dysmotility that triggers issues to organs like the esophagus.
Treatment For Scleroderma
Remember, you have no specific treatment available to deal with the chronic autoimmune disease. The treatment options can control the symptoms and avoid the problem from escalating. So, with the treatment method, you can prevent the symptoms from causing complications. The condition can cause skin problems that fade away without taking any specific medication. It takes two to five years for skin problems to fade. But, the chronic autoimmune disease affecting internal organs worsens as time progresses. So, you need proper medical treatment. The options available are:
Medications To Manage Scleroderma
You have no medication to prevent or overcome collagen overproduction. It is the most distinctive characteristic of the chronic autoimmune disease. But, today, you have medications to control the symptoms. The doctor prescribes medication for the following:
Doctors prescribe steroid creams or pills to treat or slow down skin changes that cause pain and swelling of your joints. So, these medications loosen your stiff skin as well as slow down any new changes happening to your skin.
Dilate Blood Vessels
People suffering from chronic autoimmune disease can develop lung disease, kidney problems, or Raynaud’s disease. So, the doctor prescribes blood pressure medication to dilate blood vessels. It can help in preventing any lung or kidney problems. These medications also help deal with Raynaud’s disease.
Suppress The Immune System
In some patients, immunosuppressant drugs can make some difference. So, the drugs to suppress the immune system are offered to reduce the symptoms triggered by chronic autoimmune disease. These medications are usually prescribed after organ transplants.
Due to the condition, you can suffer from digestive symptoms. So, the doctors prescribe pills to reduce stomach acid. It offers relief from heartburn. At times, antibiotics as well as other medications making food movement through your intestine easy reduce other issues like constipation, bloating, and diarrhea.
People suffering from chronic autoimmune disease suffer from fingertip ulcers when they are exposed to cold. So, they need to prevent inflection by cleaning and applying antibiotic ointment on the affected surface. They also need to take preventive measures to avoid such issues. To protect the lungs damaged by the chronic autoimmune disease, you need to get regular pneumonia and influenza vaccinations.
Get Pain Relief
You can use over-the-counter pain medication to offer relief. But, some people may not feel relief. In such cases, your doctor prescribes stronger medications to deal with the discomfort.
Therapies To Deal With Scleroderma
For dealing with different issues triggered due to the chronic autoimmune disease, then you need to undergo physical therapy or occupational therapy to deal with the following:
- Manage severe pain
- Enhance your mobility and strength
- Achieve independence to complete daily tasks.
When all other treatment options fail to offer results, your doctor suggests surgery to deal with the complications associated with the condition. So, the surgical options are:
Severe Raynaud’s disease can result in soreness of the fingers. It can progress to severe complications like the fingertip tissue starts to die. In such cases, doctors suggest amputation.
When a patient with chronic autoimmune disease suffers from severe lung problems, the doctor opts for different treatments to overcome them. When such treatment fails, the doctor suggests a lung transplant.
Lifestyle And Home Remedies For Scleroderma
While you have no specific cure available for the chronic autoimmune disease. But, you can take several steps to manage the symptoms associated with the condition. So, after getting the advice from your doctor, you can follow the pointers suggested below:
Stay Active To Overcome Scleroderma
Including exercise in your daily routine will avoid complications caused due to chronic autoimmune disease. With exercise, you can improve blood circulation, maintain flexibility, and get relief from stiffness. So, try to include range-of-motion exercise to your routine to keep the joints as well as skin flexible.
Take Care Of Your Skin
You need to protect your skin from dryness. So, you need to use a lotion to moisturize your dry or stiff skin. Also, use sunscreen to protect yourself from sun exposure. Safeguard your skin by avoiding hot showers or baths. Limit using strong soaps, cosmetics laden with chemicals, or other items containing harsh chemicals. It is because these chemicals irritate your skin and cause excessive dryness.
Smoking is bad for your health. Inhaling nicotine can result in the contraction of blood vessels, which can worsen scleroderma. So, you need to avoid smoking to safeguard your heart and lung health. If you have trouble quitting the bad habit, then seek assistance from the doctor. With professional help, you can overcome the problem.
During the chronic autoimmune disease, you can suffer from heartburn or gas. So, you need to manage the problem by taking some proactive steps:
- Try to eat at least three hours before you go to bed. Late-night meals can worsen your heartburn.
- When you sleep, try to elevate your head. Use a pillow to keep the head above your bed as it restricts stomach acid from backing into the esophagus while you sleep.
- Use antacids to relieve the symptoms like heartburn.
Protect Yourself From Cold
To avoid complications, you need to protect yourself from the cold by wear protective clothing. Keep your hands warm by wearing warm mittens. Continue to use it even when you try to get things out from the freezer. When you go out, you need to cover your head and face by wearing layers of warm clothing.
Due to the condition, you feel exhaustion. So, you need to take it easy and get sufficient rest. It is important to know your limits, but it does not mean you are lazy.
Stress can worsen chronic autoimmune disease. So, you need to learn to control your stress levels. Use relaxation techniques to minimize stress. Stress is a negative reaction, which can worsen existing health conditions. Therefore, you need to take proactive steps to control and manage the negative reaction.
You have to maintain a healthy weight. So, try to lose weight if you have a high BMI (Body Mass Index). Also, include balanced meals to ensure you maintain a sensible weight.
Good Hygiene Habits
The disease can affect the health of your teeth, gums, skin, and feet. So, you need to follow some pointers to avoid worsening of symptoms:
- Brush your teeth two times a day to safeguard the health of teeth and gums. It avoids any teeth or gum problems.
- To keep your feet safe, you need to opt for well-fitted shoes with cushions.
Coping And Support For Scleroderma
When you or your loved ones develop chronic autoimmune disease, you need to understand the severity of the condition. People suffering from a severe form of the disease have reduced life expectancy. With no cure for the condition, you can only take steps to prevent it. If you suffer from the illness, then take steps to minimize the symptoms it triggers. All the efforts taken to alleviate the symptoms can take a toll on your emotional health. So, you need to take the following steps for effective management and maintain mental health.
The treatment of chronic autoimmune disease varies from one person to another. Also, people respond to treatment differently. So, you need a treatment plan that is customized to address your symptoms. You need to talk to your doctor regarding your symptoms and work out a tailored program to meet your specific needs. Having close cooperation with the treating physician is essential to develop a tailored program for treating the patients.
Get Emotional Support
The emotional aspects of scleroderma can make you feel anxious, sad, frustrated, or depressed. Most people think why they are affected by the disease and not others. It remains a mystery why some people develop the problem while others may not. Scleroderma is not a problem that you bring on yourself. So, you must never feel guilty or responsible for developing the disease.
Share With Family
When you get the diagnosis, you may feel so many emotions. You feel alone, uncertain, and whom to turn for help. These diverse emotions can take a toll on your mental health. From shock, fear, frustration, anger, denial, guilt, sadness, or depression, you go through varying emotions. When you feel such emotional turmoil, then talk to your family about it. If you have close friends, then share your concerns with them.
Get Professional Help
You or your family members have emotional issues while coping with such chronic illnesses. Keeping the emotions bottled up inside yourself will not offer positive results. So, you need to discuss such issues with close friends or family. If you still feel distressed, then seek professional help from a counselor. Professional counseling can help you deal with your feelings and prevent them from affecting your mental health.
Build A Health And Support Network
You need to have active participation in your healthcare. So, you need to talk to your doctor and have seamless communication. Work with your physician to develop a treatment plan to address your symptoms. You and your doctor are the focal point of the health network to deal with the condition effectively. Apart from the health network, you also need a support network to deal with the mental issues arising due to the condition. It includes talking to people suffering from the same problem. You can connect with them through online groups to understand how the disease has affected their life and how they have overcome it. Some of the stories will offer you the motivation to overcome the issue.
You have to understand that no cure is available for scleroderma. But, the treatment options have drastically improved over the years. So, with the latest treatment strategies, you can manage your symptoms effectively. You need to consult your doctor when any of the symptoms get in the way of your life. Based on the symptoms, your doctor tweaks the treatment to ensure your current issues are overcome. Also, get emotional support from support groups or professionals who can help you deal with the emotional downs due to the condition. Talking to people with similar experiences will help cope with the conditions better.
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