What Is Scleroderma? Make an Appointment Ask a Question Search Conditions Systemic scleroderma is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects connective tissue (skin, tendons, joints, ligaments, blood vessels and muscles) and internal organs. Who’s at risk for systemic scleroderma?People of all races and ethnic backgrounds get scleroderma, but about 80% of people with the disease are women. Systemic scleroderma can occur at any age. However, this disease most commonly begins when people are between the ages of 30 and 60 years old. What causes scleroderma?The cause for systemic scleroderma is unknown. We do know that it is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body’s defense system (immune system) attacks itself instead of fighting off infections. This damages the blood vessels and causes the body to overproduce collagen to repair the damage. Excess collagen causes skin thickening. What are the symptoms of scleroderma?Symptoms of scleroderma vary from person to person. Some are visible and some are invisible when internal organs are affected. Common symptoms include thickening or hardening of the skin, swelling of hands and toes, hair loss, sore fingertips and generalized itching. How is scleroderma diagnosed?To diagnose systemic scleroderma, a rheumatologist (a specialist in autoimmune diseases) will review your health history, provide a physical examination and may order blood, urine and other lab tests. They also may order evaluations of the lungs and heart. How is scleroderma treated?Treatment plans for scleroderma are different for each patient. Treatment can include medications to manage skin symptoms, control disease activity and inflammation, and treat quality of life symptoms, including joint and muscle pain, heartburn and reflux. What else can you do to keep scleroderma managed?With scleroderma, in addition to working with your physician to create and follow a comprehensive treatment plan, it’s important to learn about your condition and adopt a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, strengthening muscles, healthy eating, restful sleep, getting support, quitting smoking/vaping and avoiding infections. This information has been reviewed and approved by Mehrnaz Maleki Fischbach, MD (June 2023).