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What's Scleroderma All About?

June is National Scleroderma Awareness Month, but do you have any idea what scleroderma actually is? There's a clue for those who know the meaning of root words: "sclero” is “hard” and “derma” is “skin”. But to expand beyond that, Sanjay Chabra, DO, a board-certified rheumatologist at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, tells you what scleroderma is all about.

Q. So, what is scleroderma?

A. It's an autoimmune disease that affects not only the skin, but the connective tissues inside the body. So yes, the skin can grow hard or tough, but scleroderma also takes a toll inside the body. The joints, the muscles, the arteries, the lungs, the kidneys--just about any part of the body can be affected. Scleroderma increases collagen production, which can cause the skin to become stiff, dry and cosmetically damaged, and movement in the affected area can cause discomfort. It can also lead to pain or stiffness in the affected muscles and joints, and if scleroderma reaches the body's organs it can seriously impair their functions and require hospitalization if left untreated.

Q. How does someone get scleroderma?

It's not contagious, so it doesn't spread between people. At this time, there are many theories, but the exact cause is unknown--what is known is that about 300,000 people in the United States have scleroderma, that more women get it than men and that it often manifests in patients between the ages of 25 and 55. However, anyone can get scleroderma.

Q. How do you know if you have scleroderma?

It's actually difficult to determine a diagnosis without thorough testing, as its symptoms are shared by other diseases. One of the most common symptoms is the tightening of the skin--that's caused by the body producing too much collagen, which is thought to be one of the body's autoimmune responses to the disease. Some patients may experience Raynaud's disease, in which the fingers and toes react to cold with feelings of pain or numbness. If the gastrointestinal tract is affected, there could be acid reflux. Another difficulty in making a diagnosis is that scleroderma affects each person differently, and it's a chronic disease, so one person may have a mild form of it, while another may be in a more advanced stage. That's why it's important to get it diagnosed--via exams by a rheumatologist and tests--and treated as soon as possible.

Q. What is the treatment process?

A. There is no cure for scleroderma, so treatment is focused on managing the symptoms. (Although in some cases, if scleroderma only affects the skin the symptoms can go away in time.)

The treatment plan will vary from patient to patient, depending on how scleroderma has affected them. Medication may help alleviate symptoms in certain parts of the body, such as the digestive tract or the immune system. Physical therapy can also help if scleroderma symptoms prevent patients from completing basic tasks. In general, people with scleroderma will want to lead a healthy lifestyle--eating right and exercising, taking care of their hygiene to lessen the effects on the skin, and getting rest and easing stress. If there is lung damage as a result of scleroderma, a patient should be sure to not smoke. A doctor may recommend a support group for scleroderma patients to help patients deal with anxiety or depression resulting from the disease.

Learn more about Dr. Chabra. Learn more about St. Jude Heritage Medical Group.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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