What is Scleroderma?
It’s a disease that’s both difficult to pronounce, and difficult to diagnose. A chronic, autoimmune rheumatic disease, it affects about 300,000 people in our country. Women are three to four times more likely to develop this disease, which most commonly starts between the ages of 25 and 55.
So what is it? Quite literally: sclero-derma is hardening of the skin but most basically, an arthritic disease that affects a person’s connective tissue. If you were to look for visible signs of the disease on someone who suffers from scleroderma, you might find tightening of the skin or skin sores (ulcers) on the person’s fingers. But beneath the skin lies other symptoms far more threatening – problems with the heart, lungs, blood and digestive systems, and liver.
The lungs are often the first place scleroderma is found and can represent the more serious complications of the disease. How involved the lungs are in the disease is a good predictor of how well the person will do with the disease. Complications can include pulmonary fibrosis, which can affect one’s ability to breathe, or pulmonary hypertension, which results in high blood pressure in the arteries going to the lungs.
One of the earliest symptoms might be extremely cold hands and feet, to the point of becoming numb and/or discolored. This phenomenon is called Raynaud’s, but note: not all people with Raynaud’s have scleroderma. Another symptom may involve digestive problems with acid reflux and swallowing issues.
The roots of scleroderma come in the overproduction of collagen – a fibrous type of protein that makes up connective tissue and skin. But the cause is rather baffling, mysteriously influenced by the immune system. Diagnosis can also be difficult because the disease presents itself in many different ways. Blood tests to check for elevation of certain antibodies is a first step towards diagnosis. Skin biopsies and breathing tests may also be taken. Consultation with a rheumatologist is definitely recommended.
There are medications for some of the symptoms and lifestyle recommendations include staying active, avoiding foods that can cause heartburn or acid reflux, and keeping one’s extremities warm. Finding a support group can also help as living with a chronic disease can be challenging.
The Seventh Annual Plymouth Walk, Talk, & Rock to Cure Scleroderma takes place on June 14 at Nelson Beach in Plymouth. For more information, visit http://www.scleroderma.org/site/TR?fr_id=2660&pg=entry#.VW4GuMvJBzk