Scleroderma is a rare and chronic condition that can affect many parts of your body including the skin, joints, blood vessels and internal organs. The word "scleroderma" means hard skin. One of the most visible symptoms of the condition, also called systemic sclerosis, is hardening or thickening of the skin. The disease affects women three to five times more often than men and usually develops between the ages of 30 to 50, but can occur in children and the elderly.

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Scleroderma can be limited, affecting mainly the hands and face, or diffuse, affecting the arms, legs and trunk. Symptoms can vary widely from arthritis and muscle weakening to kidney problems.

The disease involves an excess amount of a protein — called collagen — deposited in the skin and organs, which leads to the thickening and hardening of the skin.

The condition is not contagious or infectious, and the cause is unknown.

Many medications are available to help treat the condition and control symptoms, but there is not yet a cure.

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Scleroderma can affect everyone differently. The following are some of the general symptoms associated with the condition.

Skin changes, including:

  • Hardening of your skin, particularly on your hands, arms and face, and occasionally on your trunk and legs
  • Loss of hair over the affected area
  • Change in skin color
  • Ulcers or sores on your fingers

Swelling or puffiness in your hands or feet, often occurring in the morning.

A condition called sclerodactyly, which is the thickening or hardening of the skin of the fingers and toes, also can occur. This may develop after the initial swelling goes away and may be followed by the shrinking or atrophy of skin. You may experience:

  • Skin on your fingers and toes becoming hard and shiny
  • Difficulty bending your fingers

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If you think that you may have scleroderma, you should visit your doctor immediately. Your doctor will begin by conducting a thorough physical examination and asking about your symptoms and medical history.

Laboratory tests can assist with diagnosis. These usually include blood tests, but occasionally involve tests of lung, heart or digestive function or a biopsy of affected tissues.

Drug Therapy

Although there is no current cure for scleroderma, there are many drugs available to help control it, including:

  • Aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat joint pain and swelling
  • Steroids to treat muscle and joint problems
  • Antacids to relieve heartburn and intestinal motion and to protect the esophagus and stomach
  • Medication to treat high blood pressure
  • Drugs to treat Raynaud's phenomenon by increasing blood flow to your fingers and toes


Exercise is very important for people with scleroderma because it increases skin and joint flexibility, promotes blood flow and prevents contractures. Your doctor and physical therapist can work with you to develop a healthy exercise plan.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

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