The word scleroderma means 'hard skin' and the condition affects the blood vessels, immune system and connective tissue. The skin, usually of the hands and feet, becomes stiff, tight and shiny. The disease is also known as systemic sclerosis, when other parts of the body are affected.
In scleroderma the body produces too much of a protein called collagen. This is essential for holding the body together but too much causes the body to become stiff and unable to function properly. The excess collagen is like scar tissue, it causes thickening and stiffening of those parts of the body it affects.
There are two major types of scleroderma: Localised - which affects isolated areas of skin and the tissues beneath it. This is relatively mild and does not normally affect internal organs. Systemic - this affects both the skin and internal organs, including joints, blood vessels, digestive system, heart, lungs and kidneys.
The symptoms include: extreme sensitivity to cold (most people with scleroderma suffer with Raynaud's at some stage in their illness), swelling of the hands and feet, especially in the morning and the skin of the fingers and toes may look and feel swollen. The skin may become shiny and the facial skin becomes stiff. The joints may tighten and bend due to the thickening of the skin and the disease may also affect the connective tissue of the internal organs.
Women are affected more often than men and the disease usually starts between the ages of 25 and 55. The cause is unknown and it is neither contagious or inherited. Scleroderma is a slow, chronic disorder, usually starting slowly and progressing gradually. Treatment consists of exercise, care of the skin and various drugs to help control the condition or treat complications. Although there is no cure, proper treatment and care can make it possible for people with scleroderma to lead a full life.