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Quick Facts

Systemic Sclerosis



The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jun 2019| Content last modified Jun 2019
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What is systemic sclerosis?

Systemic sclerosis causes scarring in your skin, joints, organs, and blood vessels.

  • Systemic sclerosis is rare

  • It is more common in women than in men and usually happens in people ages 20 to 50

  • Systemic sclerosis can cause tightening and hardening of the skin and damage to other organs

  • You may have problems in only one part of your body or have problems with multiple organs throughout your body

  • Systemic sclerosis gets worse over time, but treatment can lessen your symptoms

What causes systemic sclerosis?

Systemic sclerosis happens when your tissue makes too much collagen and other proteins. Collagen is a protein that helps give structure to your skin, nails, hair, tendons, and other tissue. Too much collagen can cause hardening and scarring.

Doctors don’t know what causes systemic sclerosis to happen.

What are the symptoms of systemic sclerosis?

Symptoms can include:

  • Swelling, thickening, and tightening of the skin, usually in your fingers

  • Fingers that get pale, tingly, and numb when you get cold (Raynaud syndrome)

  • Heartburn

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Aches and pains in your joints

  • Sometimes, muscle pain and weakness

Systemic sclerosis can cause too much scarring to build up in other organs of the body, such as the joints, lungs, digestive system, heart, and kidneys, and stop them from working right. When it damages blood vessels, blood pressure can go up.

Some people with these symptoms also have mixed connective tissue disease.

How can doctors tell if I have systemic sclerosis?

Doctors ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam. They may do tests, such as:

  • Blood tests

  • Breathing tests

  • CT scan of your chest

  • Echocardiogram (a type of ultrasound that uses sound waves to create a video that shows how well your heart is pumping and how well your heart’s valves are working)

  • ECG (a test that measures your heart’s electrical currents and records them on a piece of paper)

How do doctors treat systemic sclerosis?

Medicine can’t stop systemic sclerosis from getting worse over time, but it can help with some symptoms. Treatments include:

  • NSAIDs (such as aspirin or ibuprofen) to help with joint pain

  • Medicine to keep your immune system from damaging your tissues

  • Medicine to lessen heartburn

  • Medicine to dilate your blood vessels and lower blood pressure

  • Physical therapy and exercise

  • Sometimes, lung transplant

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