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Unveiling Scleroderma: Recognising the Signs and Symptoms

With 6000 Aussies living with scleroderma, it’s a rare but often distressing condition known to affect 3 times more women than men. To make diagnosis matters more difficult, the signs and symptoms often overlap with a number of other autoimmune conditions – we’re here to give you the rundown on what to look out for. 

Scleroderma, also known as systemic sclerosis, is a rare and chronic autoimmune disease that primarily affects the skin, but can also impact internal organs and connective tissues. The name "scleroderma" is derived from Greek words meaning "hard skin," which reflects one of the main symptoms of the condition—the hardening and tightening of the skin.

Scleroderma can affect internal organs such as the lungs, heart, kidneys, and digestive system. Complications in these organs can lead to serious health issues.

Autoimmune Nature: Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. This immune response contributes to the fibrosis (excessive tissue scarring) seen in the skin and internal organs.

Variability: Scleroderma manifests in various ways, and its symptoms can vary widely from person to person. It can be localised to specific areas of the skin or involve multiple systems in the body.

Chronic Nature: Scleroderma is a chronic condition, meaning it persists over time. Managing the symptoms and complications often requires ongoing medical care.

Multidisciplinary Approach: Due to the involvement of multiple organs, managing scleroderma often requires a multidisciplinary healthcare approach. Rheumatologists, dermatologists, pulmonologists, and other specialists may be involved in the care of individuals with scleroderma.

Let's take a look at the classic signs of scleroderma.

Skin Tightening

One of the hallmark signs is the tightening of the skin, often on the fingers and hands. This can hinder movement and dexterity.

Raynaud's Phenomenon

Many with scleroderma experience Raynaud's phenomenon, where fingers and toes turn white or blue in response to cold or stress. As blood flow is compromised, individuals with Raynaud's may experience pain or tingling sensations in the affected areas. This discomfort can vary in intensity and duration. In cases of secondary Raynaud's, which is associated with other autoimmune or connective tissue diseases, joint pain and inflammation may be present. This is often indicative that scleroderma is the underlying condition.

Skin Discoloration

Skin can take on a variety of hues, ranging from white and blue to red. These colour changes are indicative of blood flow disruptions. 

Joint Pain and Stiffness 

Scleroderma can affect the joints, causing pain and stiffness. This can impede everyday activities and reduce mobility.

Digestive Challenges

In some cases, the digestive system may be impacted, leading to acid reflux, difficulty swallowing, or bloating.

Respiratory Issues

The condition can extend to the lungs, causing shortness of breath and a persistent cough.

Kidney Damage

Scleroderma can affect the kidneys, leading to hypertension and potential kidney damage.

Heart Complications

The heart may face challenges, including inflammation of the pericardium or the development of pulmonary hypertension.

Muscle Weakness

Some individuals experience muscle weakness, impacting overall strength and stamina.


Chronic fatigue is a common companion of scleroderma, impacting daily life and activities.

Emotional Strain

Coping with the physical changes and health challenges can take a toll on mental health, leading to stress and anxiety.

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