Because scleroderma can take so many forms and affect so many different areas of the body, it can be difficult to diagnose.
After a thorough physical exam, your doctor may suggest blood tests to check for elevated levels of certain antibodies produced by the immune system.
Your doctor may also suggest other blood tests, imaging or organ-function tests to help determine whether your digestive system, heart, lungs or kidneys are affected.
There is no treatment that can cure or stop the overproduction of collagen that is characteristic of scleroderma. But a variety of treatments can help control symptoms and prevent complications.
Because scleroderma can affect so many different parts of the body, the choice of medication will vary, depending on the symptoms. Examples include drugs that:
- Dilate blood vessels. Blood pressure medications that dilate blood vessels may help treat Raynaud's phenomenon.
- Suppress the immune system. Drugs that suppress the immune system, such as those taken after organ transplants, may help reduce progression of some scleroderma symptoms, such as the thickening of the skin or worsening of lung damage.
- Reduce digestive symptoms. Pills to reduce stomach acid can help relieve heartburn. Antibiotics and medications that help move food through the intestines may help reduce bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
- Prevent infections. Cleaning and protection from the cold may help prevent infection of fingertip ulcers caused by Raynaud's disease. Regular influenza and pneumonia vaccinations can help protect lungs that have been damaged by scleroderma.
- Relieve pain. If over-the-counter pain relievers don't help enough, your doctor might suggest prescription medications to control pain.
Physical or occupational therapists can help you improve your strength and mobility and maintain independence with daily tasks. Hand therapy may help prevent hand contractures.
Surgical and other procedures
Stem cell transplants might be an option for people who have severe symptoms that haven't responded to more-common treatments. If the lungs or kidneys have been severely damaged, organ transplants might be considered.
Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this condition.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You can take a number of steps to help manage your symptoms of scleroderma:
- Stay active. Exercise keeps your body flexible, improves circulation and relieves stiffness. Range-of-motion exercises can help keep your skin and joints flexible. This is always very important, but especially early in the disease course.
- Protect your skin. Take good care of dry or stiff skin by using lotion and sunscreen regularly. Avoid hot baths and showers and exposure to strong soaps and household chemicals, which can irritate and further dry out your skin.
- Don't smoke. Nicotine causes blood vessels to contract, making Raynaud's disease worse. Smoking can also cause permanent narrowing of the blood vessels, and cause or exacerbate lung problems. Quitting smoking is difficult — ask your doctor for help.
- Manage heartburn. Avoid foods that give you heartburn or gas. Also avoid late-night meals. Elevate the head of your bed to keep stomach acid from backing up into your esophagus as you sleep. Antacids may help relieve symptoms.
- Protect yourself from the cold. Wear warm mittens for protection anytime your hands are exposed to cold — even when you reach into a freezer. It is also important to keep your core body temperature warm to help prevent Raynaud's symptoms. When you're outside in the cold, wear warm boots, cover your face and head, and wear layers of warm clothing.
Coping and support
As is true with other chronic diseases, living with scleroderma can place you on a roller coaster of emotions. Here are some suggestions to help you even out the ups and downs:
- Maintain normal daily activities as best you can.
- Pace yourself and be sure to get the rest that you need.
- Stay connected with friends and family.
- Continue to pursue hobbies that you enjoy and are able to do.
Keep in mind that your physical health can have a direct impact on your mental health. Denial, anger and frustration are common with chronic illnesses.
At times, you may need additional tools to deal with your emotions. Professionals, such as therapists or behavior psychologists, may be able to help you put things in perspective. They can also help you develop coping skills, including relaxation techniques.
Joining a support group, where you can share experiences and feelings with other people, is often a good approach. Ask your doctor what support groups are available in your community.
Preparing for your appointment
You'll probably first bring your symptoms to the attention of your family doctor, who may refer you to a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles and bone (rheumatologist). Because scleroderma can affect many organ systems, you may need to see a variety of medical specialists.
What you can do
Time with your doctors may be brief. To make the best use of the limited time, plan ahead and write lists of important information, including:
- Detailed descriptions of all your symptoms
- A list of all your medications and dosages, including nonprescription drugs and supplements
- Questions for the doctor, such as what tests or treatments he or she may recommend
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:
- Do your fingers change colors when you get cold?
- Do you regularly experience heartburn or swallowing problems?
- Have you noticed any skin tightening or skin thickening?
Jan. 27, 2022