Systemic sclerosis is sometimes called scleroderma. “Sclero” is from a Greek word that translates to “hard,” and “derma” from a Latin one that means “skin.” The word origin gives you a good idea of one aspect of the disease. Systemic sclerosis is an autoimmune rheumatic disease.
As our name suggests, at Rheumatology Solutions, our providers are experts in rheumatic conditions, including systemic sclerosis. We can help you understand your condition and navigate your treatment plan.
Experts estimate that about 300,000 people in the US have scleroderma, and about 100,000 of them have systemic sclerosis. The disease can develop at any age, but most often it begins between the ages of 25 and 55. More women than men have systemic sclerosis, and there may be a genetic component, but scientists aren’t sure exactly how it works.
This disease is rare, not thoroughly understood, and the symptoms and progression tend to vary more than other diseases. These facts make it crucial for patients with systemic sclerosis to work closely with their medical team, especially their rheumatologist.
Although we discussed the root word for skin in the beginning of this post, systemic sclerosis can affect connective tissue throughout your body. Your skin, esophagus, digestive tract, and internal organs can all be affected and so can blood vessels, muscles, and joints.
The tissues in the affected parts of your body become harder and less flexible and less efficient.
You may have diffuse scleroderma, which means it’s more of your skin will be affected, and it may happen quickly. Additionally, you’re at a higher risk of your organs becoming involved if you have diffuse scleroderma.
In limited scleroderma, less of your skin is involved. The disease also develops more slowly, often over years. Your organs may be affected, but it usually takes longer.
Both groups have a high risk of developing pulmonary hypertension because the blood vessels in your lungs can harden and become narrower. Since blood doesn’t flow as efficiently, you feel short of breath.
Here are five signs you may have systemic scleroderma:
Often, patients first notice their skin is thicker on their fingers or hands. Your skin may feel tight on your face, elbows, and knees. You might also notice shiny areas of skin in bony places.
You may have reflux or GERD, or you may be constipated or have diarrhea. Perhaps you find it difficult to swallow, or you experience bloating after you eat. These may be symptoms of systemic sclerosis.
Of course, many, many conditions involve these same symptoms, which can make it difficult to realize they could be part of a connective tissue disease.
If your disease is affecting the tissues that support your joints, you may have joint pain. Since rheumatologists also treat many patients with joint pain, our experts may recognize what your joint pain is, or is not.
These are likely calcium deposits. You may also experience something called Raynaud’s phenomenon, which involves spasms in the blood vessels of your fingers and toes. Your extremities may turn white or blue when you’re cold or when you’re under emotional stress.
Hair loss, like digestive problems, can be a symptom of many conditions. However, when it is accompanied by any of the other symptoms on this list, it could point toward systemic sclerosis.
If you have questions about systemic sclerosis, or you’ve been diagnosed and would like to discuss a treatment plan, schedule an appointment at Rheumatology Solutions.