Scleroderma is a connective-tissue disease that causes a progressive build up of tough scar-like tissue in the skin and internal organs. The term scleroderma is derived from the Greek words, skleros, meaning "hard," and derma meaning "skin." An individual with scleroderma may develop either a localized or systemic form of the disease. Localized scleroderma usually affects only the skin on the hands and face. Systemic scleroderma, however, affects the connective tissue in many parts of the body, including the skin, the esophagus, gastrointestinal tract, lungs, kidneys, heart, and other internal organs. It is unusual for localized scleroderma to progress to the systemic form. According to the Scleroderma Foundation, an estimated 300,000 people in the United States have the condition.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of scleroderma may include one or more of the following: Five particular symptoms occasionally occur together and are clinically recognized as a variation of scleroderma called CREST syndrome. The term CREST stands for Calcinosis (painful calcium deposits under the skin), Raynaud's phenomenon (abnormal sensitivity to cold in the hands and feet), Esophageal dysfunction (problems with swallowing caused by internal scarring), Sclerodactyly (tightening of the skin on the fingers or toes) and Telangiectasia (lesions on the hands, palms, forearms, face, and lips).


Scleroderma results from an overproduction of collagen, the primary connective tissue protein in the body. Scientists believe that the immune system mistakenly attacks the patient's own cells (an autoimmune response), producing too many white blood cells and other factors that cause a damaging inflammatory response and an overproduction of collagen, primarily in the skin. Researchers are not clear why this autoimmune response occurs, but they suggest that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of the disease. For example, scleroderma has been associated with a number of industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals including:

Risk Factors

The following factors may increase a person's risk for scleroderma:


An individual with symptoms of scleroderma will most likely require consultations with both a rheumatologist (arthritis specialist) and a dermatologist (skin specialist). The physician will conduct a physical examination in which he or she may feel the skin, checking for thickened and hardened areas and may also press affected tendons and joints. The physician may also conduct the following procedures to diagnose the disease: Diagnosing scleroderma may be difficult, particularly in the early stages of the disease. This is because many individuals with scleroderma experience symptoms of other connective-tissue diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and polymyositis. When these conditions overlap, it is called mixed connective-tissue disease.

Preventive Care

It is important for an individual with scleroderma to avoid developing infections, so the physician will administer the following:

Treatment Approach

Currently, there is no cure for scleroderma. While medications are often used to treat the symptoms of the disease, they are not always effective and many have significant side effects. There are, however, less toxic ways to treat the symptoms of scleroderma, which make living with the disease easier. For example, biofeedback successfully controls the temperature of the hands and feet of those with Raynaud's phenomenon. Studies also suggest that acupuncture may raise the temperature and improve circulation in the hands and feet. Finally, simple lifestyle changes may also improve an individual's quality of life.


While lifestyle adjustments will not stop the progression of scleroderma, these simple measures may enhance an individual's quality of life:


Localized scleroderma often is treated with topical therapies such as moisturizers or topical corticosteroids. Oral medications may also be used to halt the progression of localized scleroderma if it involves a large area of the body, such as an entire arm or leg. Systemic scleroderma may be treated with medications that improve circulation, promote gastrointestinal function, preserve kidney function, and control high blood pressure. Some medications a physician may prescribe for scleroderma include:

Surgery and Other Procedures

When symptoms of scleroderma become very severe, physicians may recommend the following procedures:

Nutrition and Dietary Supplements

Many individuals with scleroderma develop gastrointestinal problems and consequently reduce the amount of food they consume and nutrients they absorb. A recent study found that people with scleroderma tend to have deficiences in many vitamins and minerals. To prevent malnutrition, clinicians may recommend daily multivitamins that contain the following: Preliminary research also suggests that creams containing vitamin E may soften hard skin; however, more research is warranted in this area.


Although herbs have not been rigorously tested for the treatment of scleroderma, some preliminary studies of particular herbs have shown promise in inhibiting actions that may be related to the development of scleroderma. These herbs include:

Danshen root (Salvia miltiorrhizae)
This herb is currently used in China to treat circulatory problems and kidney failure. One preliminary study indicates that danshen root prevents the formation of fibrous tissue, but further research is required before it can be proven effective for the treatment of scleroderma.

Laboratory studies indicate that this Chinese herbal mixture may inhibit collagen synthesis. The active ingredients in this herbal mixture include Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), Chinese cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum aromaticum) used traditionally for bloating and heartburn, and peony root (Paeonia lactiflora) used for arthritis as well as gastrointestinal, heart, and circulatory problems.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
Clinical trials suggest that low doses of gotu kola may decrease hardening of the skin associated with scleroderma, reduce joint pain and improve finger mobility. These studies involved small numbers of patients, however, so additional research in this area is warranted.

Although they haven't been scientifically examined for the treatment of scleroderma specifically, certain herbs, including bromelain (Ananas comosus), hawthorn berry (Crataegus monogyna), and horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), may be beneficial in treating connective tissue disorders in general.


A few studies of patients with systemic scleroderma indicate that acupuncture may improve circulation in the hands and fingers, mend fingertip ulcers, and possibly reduce the formation of fibrous tissue.

Massage and Physical Therapy

Research suggests that massage may be useful in improving circulation and preventing muscle distortion. More research is needed in this area to determine whether massage is truly an effective complementary therapy for scleroderma.

Mind/Body Medicine

Biofeedback appears to successfully control the temperature in the hands and feet of those with Raynaud's phenomenon, a symptom often found in those with scleroderma.

Other Considerations

Prognosis and Complications

Possible complications that may result from scleroderma include the following: The prognosis for those with scleroderma is highly variable and depends primarily on the form of the disease. For example:


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