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Systemic Sclerosis



Alana M. Nevares

, MD, The University of Vermont Medical Center

Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Content last modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources
  • The cause of systemic sclerosis is unknown.

  • Swelling of the fingers, intermittent coolness and blue discoloration of the fingers, joints freezing in permanent (usually flexed) positions (contractures), and damage to the gastrointestinal system, lungs, heart, or kidneys may develop.

  • People often have antibodies in the blood characteristic of an autoimmune disorder.

  • There is no cure for systemic sclerosis, but symptoms and organ dysfunction can be treated.

Systemic sclerosis causes an overproduction of collagen and other proteins in various tissues. The cause of systemic sclerosis is not known. The disorder is 4 times more common among women and most common among people aged 20 to 50. It is rare among children. Symptoms of systemic sclerosis may occur as part of mixed connective tissue disease Mixed Connective Tissue Disease (MCTD) Mixed connective tissue disease is a term used by some doctors to describe a disorder characterized by features of systemic lupus erythematosus, systemic sclerosis, and polymyositis. Raynaud... read more Mixed Connective Tissue Disease (MCTD) , and some people with mixed connective tissue disease ultimately develop severe systemic sclerosis.

Systemic sclerosis can be categorized as

  • Limited systemic sclerosis (CREST syndrome)

  • Diffuse systemic sclerosis

  • Systemic sclerosis without scleroderma (systemic sclerosis sine scleroderma)

Diffuse systemic sclerosis often causes skin damage that is widespread throughout the body. People who have this type have Raynaud phenomenon Raynaud Syndrome Raynaud syndrome, a functional peripheral arterial disease, is a condition in which small arteries (arterioles), usually in the fingers or toes, narrow (constrict) more tightly than normal in... read more Raynaud Syndrome and gastrointestinal problems. This type may progress rapidly. Major complications include interstitial lung diseases Overview of Interstitial Lung Diseases Interstitial lung disease (also called diffuse parenchymal disease) is a term used to describe a number of different disorders that affect the interstitial space. The interstitial space consists... read more , which affect the tissue and space around the air sacs of the lungs (alveoli), and a severe kidney problem called scleroderma renal crisis.

Systemic sclerosis without scleroderma rarely occurs without the skin tightening of scleroderma. However, people have antibodies in the blood characteristic of systemic sclerosis and have the same internal problems.

Symptoms of Systemic Sclerosis

The usual initial symptom of systemic sclerosis is swelling then thickening and tightening of the skin at the ends of the fingers. Raynaud phenomenon Raynaud Syndrome Raynaud syndrome, a functional peripheral arterial disease, is a condition in which small arteries (arterioles), usually in the fingers or toes, narrow (constrict) more tightly than normal in... read more Raynaud Syndrome , in which the fingers suddenly and temporarily become very pale and tingle or become numb, painful, or both in response to cold or emotional upset, is also common. Fingers may become bluish or white. Heartburn, difficulty in swallowing, and shortness of breath are occasionally the first symptoms of systemic sclerosis. Aches and pains in several joints often accompany early symptoms. Sometimes inflammation of the muscles (myositis Autoimmune Myositis Autoimmune myositis causes inflammation and weakness in the muscles (polymyositis) or in the skin and muscles (dermatomyositis). Muscle damage may cause muscle pain and muscle weakness may cause... read more Autoimmune Myositis ), with its accompanying muscle pain and weakness, develops.

Skin changes

Systemic sclerosis can damage large areas of skin or only the fingers (sclerodactyly). Sometimes systemic sclerosis tends to stay restricted to the skin of the hands. Other times, the disorder progresses. The skin becomes more widely taut, shiny, and darker than usual. The skin on the face tightens, sometimes resulting in an inability to change facial expressions. However, in some people, the skin can soften over time. Sometimes dilated blood vessels (telangiectasia often referred to as spider veins) can appear on the fingers, chest, face, lips, and tongue, and bumps composed of calcium can develop on the fingers, on other bony areas, or at the joints. Sores can develop on the fingertips and knuckles.

Examples of Skin Changes in Systemic Sclerosis

Joint changes

Sometimes, a grating sound can be felt or heard as inflamed tissues move over each other, particularly at and below the knees and at the elbows and wrists. The fingers, wrists, and elbows may become stuck (forming a contracture) in flexed positions because of scarring in the skin.

Gastrointestinal system changes

Nerve damage and then scarring commonly damage the lower end of the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth and stomach). The damaged esophagus can no longer propel food to the stomach efficiently. Swallowing difficulties Difficulty Swallowing Some people have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). In dysphagia, foods and/or liquids do not move normally from the throat (pharynx) to the stomach. People feel as though food or liquids become... read more and heartburn eventually develop in many people who have systemic sclerosis. Abnormal cell growth in the esophagus (Barrett esophagus Risk Factors Risk Factors ) occurs in about one third of people, increasing their risk of esophageal blockage (stricture) due to a fibrous band or their risk of esophageal cancer Esophageal Cancer Esophageal cancers develop in the cells that line the wall of the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach). Tobacco and alcohol use, human papillomavirus infections, and... read more Esophageal Cancer . Damage to the intestines can interfere with food absorption (malabsorption Overview of Malabsorption Malabsorption syndrome refers to a number of disorders in which nutrients from food are not absorbed properly in the small intestine. Certain disorders, infections, and surgical procedures can... read more ) and cause weight loss.

Lung and heart changes

Kidney changes

Severe kidney disease can result from systemic sclerosis. The first symptom of kidney damage may be an abrupt, progressive rise in blood pressure (scleroderma renal crisis). High blood pressure is an ominous sign, but early treatment usually controls it and may prevent or reverse the kidney damage.

CREST syndrome

CREST syndrome, also called limited systemic sclerosis, involves more peripheral areas of the skin (not the trunk). It typically does not affect the kidneys and lungs directly but may eventually increase pressure in the arteries that supply the lungs (called pulmonary hypertension). Pulmonary hypertension can cause heart and lung failure. CREST syndrome is named for its symptoms: Calcium deposits in the skin and throughout the body, Raynaud phenomenon, Esophageal dysfunction, Sclerodactyly (skin tightening on the fingers), and Telangiectasia (dilated blood vessels or spider veins). In CREST syndrome, Raynaud phenomenon can be severe enough to cause sores on the skin (ulcers) and permanently damage the fingers and toes. The drainage system from the liver may rarely become blocked by scar tissue (biliary cirrhosis Primary Biliary Cholangitis (PBC) Primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) is inflammation with progressive scarring of the bile ducts in the liver. Eventually, the ducts are blocked, the liver becomes scarred, and cirrhosis and liver... read more ), resulting in liver damage and jaundice.

Diagnosis of Systemic Sclerosis

  • Symptoms and a doctor's evaluation

  • Testing for antibodies

  • Established criteria

A doctor suspects systemic sclerosis in people who have Raynaud phenomenon, typical joint and skin changes, or gastrointestinal, lung, and heart problems that cannot be otherwise explained. A doctor diagnoses systemic sclerosis by the characteristic changes in the skin, the results of blood tests, and presence of damage to internal organs. The symptoms may overlap with those of several other disorders, but the whole pattern is usually distinctive.

Laboratory tests alone cannot identify systemic sclerosis because test results, like the symptoms, vary greatly. However, antinuclear antibodies (ANA) are present in the blood of more than 90% of people with systemic sclerosis. An antibody to centromeres (part of a chromosome) is often present in people who have limited systemic sclerosis. Different antibodies, called anti-topoisomerase and RNA polymerase III, are often present in people who have diffuse systemic sclerosis. Thus, the diagnosis of systemic sclerosis is based on all of the information doctors gather, including symptoms, physical examination results, and all test results.

To help make the diagnosis, doctors may also consult a set of established criteria:

  • Skin thickening of the fingers of both hands

  • Sores or scars on the fingertips

  • Dilated blood vessels (telangiectasia)

  • Abnormal nail fold capillaries (blood vessels)

  • Pulmonary hypertension, interstitial lung disease, or both

  • Raynaud phenomenon

  • Antibody to centromeres, anti-topoisomerase, or RNA polymerase III

Prognosis of Systemic Sclerosis

Sometimes systemic sclerosis worsens rapidly and becomes fatal (mainly with diffuse systemic sclerosis). At other times, it affects only the skin for decades before affecting internal organs, although some damage to internal organs (such as the esophagus) is almost inevitable. The course is unpredictable. Overall, 92% of people who have limited systemic sclerosis and 65% of people who have diffuse systemic sclerosis live for at least 10 years after the diagnosis is made. The prognosis is worst for those who are male, develop the disease later in life, have diffuse systemic sclerosis, or have heart, lung, or, particularly, kidney damage. The prognosis for people who have limited systemic sclerosis (CREST syndrome) tends to be more favorable.

Treatment of Systemic Sclerosis

  • Measures to relieve symptoms and reduce organ damage

There is no cure for systemic sclerosis.

No drug can stop the progression of systemic sclerosis. However, drugs can relieve some symptoms and reduce organ damage.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Pain relievers (analgesics) are the main drugs used to treat pain. Doctors choose a pain reliever based on the type and duration of pain and on the drug's likely benefits and risks. Most pain... read more (NSAIDs) help relieve joint pain but may cause gastrointestinal problems. However, NSAIDs are not given to people who have systemic sclerosis and who have a history of stomach bleeding or ulcers, or who have chronic kidney disease.

If the person has weakness because of myositis, corticosteroids are given, usually with another drug such as azathioprine or other drugs that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressive drugs).

Immunosuppressive drugs, such as mycophenolate mofetil and, in severe cases, cyclophosphamide, are also used to treat lung inflammation. Some people may need a lung transplant.

Doctors treat severe pulmonary hypertension with drugs, including bosentan or epoprostenol.

Heartburn can be relieved by eating small meals, taking antacids, and using proton pump inhibitors, which block stomach acid production. Sleeping with the head of the bed elevated and not lying down within 3 hours of the last meal often help.

Areas of the esophagus narrowed by scar tissue can be surgically widened (dilated).

Antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin and metronidazole can help prevent the overgrowth of bacteria in the damaged intestine and may relieve symptoms of bacterial overgrowth Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth is a disorder in which poor movement of intestinal contents allows certain normal intestinal bacteria to grow excessively, causing diarrhea and poor absorption... read more , such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

A calcium channel blocker (such as nifedipine) may relieve the symptoms of Raynaud phenomenon but may also increase the reflux of stomach acid. The drugs bosentan, sildenafil, tadalafil, and vardenafil are other alternatives for severe Raynaud phenomenon. People should dress warmly, wear gloves, and keep their head warm.

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