Scleroderma Treatment and Diagnosis

Scleroderma, also known as systemic sclerosis, is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes the accumulation of scar tissue (fibrosis) in the skin and internal organs. It is also strongly associated with blood vessel abnormalities and may involve the joints.

The disease is much more common in women than in men, and typically occurs between age 30 and 50. Although the direct cause of scleroderma is unknown, in some patients exposure to environmental factors, such as silica dust, industrial solvents, and certain chemotherapy drugs, may play a role.

Physicians at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Center for Arthritis and Joint Diseases collaborate with BWH specialists in dermatology, bone and joint radiology, occupational and physical therapy, podiatry, orthopaedics, pain management, physiatry, neurology, and other services to evaluate and treat scleroderma and other autoimmune disorders.

Scleroderma Symptoms

Scleroderma can lead to scarring of the skin, joints, and internal organs. The following are common symptoms of scleroderma:

  • Thickening and swelling of the fingertips and feet
  • Raynaud's phenomenon – pale, tingly, and numb fingers when exposed to cold or when emotionally upset
  • Sores on fingertips, knuckles, and toes
  • Acid reflux and difficulty swallowing
  • Dark or shiny skin
  • Tightened skin on face and fingers
  • Red spots on skin
  • Spider veins
  • Calcium bumps under the skin
  • Hair loss
  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms
  • Kidney disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue

Scleroderma Diagnosis

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, one or more of the following tests may be used to help diagnose scleroderma:

  • Blood tests – to detect elevated levels of certain antibodies produced by the immune system
  • Biopsy – to look for skin abnormalities
  • Other diagnostic tests – to identify any lung, heart, or kidney complications that frequently accompany scleroderma

Scleroderma Treatment

Scleroderma treatment may include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and swelling
  • Corticosteroids to relieve pain and swelling
  • Immunosuppressants to slow down the progression of the disease
  • Stomach acid blockers to reduce heartburn and improve swallowing
  • Anti-hypertensives to control blood pressure
  • Vasodilators to improve blood pressure
  • Physical therapy and exercise to maintain muscle strength and flexibility

Request an Appointment

To schedule an appointment with one of our scleroderma treatment specialists at the Center for Arthritis and Joint Diseases, please call 1-800-294-9999 or use our online appointment request form.