Scleroderma literally means "hard skin." The term refers to a family of rare diseases that cause thickened or hardened tissue in the skin, blood vessels and joints. The more severe types of the disease cause tissue damage in vital organs that can lead to death.

Although the cause of the disease is unknown, most researchers believe it stems from an abnormal autoimmune response of the body to overproduce collagen, a protein found in connective tissue. Scleroderma is a chronic condition that does not appear to be genetic in nature and is not contagious.

There are two types of scleroderma, localized and generalized. Under the first type, experts identify two sub-types that affect only the skin: morphia, which appears as hard, oval patches on the skin, usually white in color with purplish rings; and linear, which, as its name indicates, appears as lines or streaks of thick skin along the arms, legs or forehead.

Generalized scleroderma, on the other hand, is more than skin deep - this type can seriously affect other parts of the body. As with localized scleroderma, generalized scleroderma has two sub-types: limited scleroderma begins with the skin and may gradually migrate to internal organs like the lungs or intestines; diffuse scleroderma, on the other hand, develops suddenly with fast-spreading thickening of the skin all over the body that migrates quickly to internal organs.

The early signs and symptoms of scleroderma include numbness, unusual pain or color changes in the skin (especially in the arms and legs), a feeling of hardening or tightening in the skin, and stiff or painful joints. Individuals experiencing these symptoms should see their doctor as soon as possible. If it is scleroderma, it is important to diagnose it early to see if the condition has affected internal organs.

Common Treatments:

There is no cure for scleroderma, but a variety of drugs have been developed to control the disease and slow its progress. Physicians will typically prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and aspirin to control pain and swelling. Steroids are also employed to treat affected muscles and joints. Some patients may take antacids for heartburn, as well as blood pressure regulation medication. Physicians also recommend exercise, joint and skin protection to reduce the effects of injury amplified by the disease.
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