Scleroderma is an autoimmune disorder affecting the connective tissue that supports the skin and internal organs. In this disease, the body essentially attacks itself in a process involving inflammation and the buildup of collagen. Symptoms of this chronic disorder can range from mild to life-threatening.
Scleroderma comes in two main types: localized and systemic. Localized scleroderma primarily causes discoloring and thickening of the skin but does not affect the internal organs. Systemic scleroderma can affect not only the skin, but also the blood vessels and major organs, including the heart, lungs and kidneys. Systemic scleroderma can cause problems such as:
- Joint stiffness and pain
- Raynaud’s phenomenon, in which the fingers or toes change color, often in response to cold
- Skin tightening and thickening
- Acid reflux
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
No single test can diagnose scleroderma. Physicians rely on medical history, physical examination and laboratory studies, including blood tests and skin biopsy, to determine whether a person has the condition. Scleroderma can occur in people of any age, but typically emerges between ages 30 and 50. Approximately 75 percent of people with the disease are women. Scientists do not know what causes scleroderma, but they believe some people may have a genetic predisposition that can be triggered by as-yet unknown environmental factors.