Raynaud's phenomenon is often the first sign of scleroderma. With this condition, small blood vessels constrict in the fingers, toes, ears, and sometimes even the nose.
Attacks of Raynaud's phenomenon can occur several times a day, and are often brought on or worsened by exposure to cold. Warmth relieves these attacks. In severe cases, attacks can develop regardless of the temperature. Severe cases may also cause open sores or damage to the skin and bones, if the circulation is cut off for too long.
Typically, the fingers go through three color changes (white-blue-red):
- First, they become very pale.
- As the blood flow is reduced, they turn a bluish color, usually in the top two sections of the second and third fingers.
- Finally, when blood flow returns, the fingers become red.
Tingling and pain can occur in the affected regions.
Raynaud's is very common and occurs in 3% to 5% of the general population. It is important to note that more than 80% of people with Raynaud's phenomenon do not have scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or other serious illnesses. This form of Raynaud's phenomenon occurs most commonly in young women. Raynaud's is more likely to be a symptom of scleroderma or some other connective tissue disease if it develops after age 30, if it is severe, and if it is accompanied by other symptoms (such as skin changes and arthritis).
Course of Typical Skin Changes
The primary symptoms of scleroderma occur in the skin. They often take the following course:
- Typically, pitted scars appear first on the hands. The skin begins to thicken and harden on the hands, feet, and face. The fingers may swell. This condition is called sclerodactyly or acrosclerosis. People with diffuse scleroderma may have swelling of the whole hand before the skin significantly thickens.
- Thickened or hardened patches may also develop on other areas of the body. (Their appearance on the trunk and near the elbows or knees tends to be a sign of a more severe condition.)
- For the first 2 or 3 years, the skin continues to thicken and feel puffy.
- This process then stops, and can even get better. The skin may soften.
- As the disease progresses further, however, the skin loses its ability to stretch, and becomes shiny as it tightens across the underlying bone, particularly in the fingers, toes, and around the mouth.
- Eventually, in severe cases, the fingers may lose the ability to move freely, and can be difficult to bend. The hands and feet may curl from the tightness of the skin. It may be difficult to open the mouth widely.
Other Skin Changes
The following skin symptoms may also occur:
- Flat red marks, known as telangiectasis, may appear in various locations, usually the face, palms, lips, or the inside of the mouth.
- In calcinosis, small white lumps form beneath the skin, sometimes oozing a white substance that looks like toothpaste. Calcinosis can lead to infections.
- Small blood vessels at the base of the fingernails may be severely narrowed in some places, and may widen in other places. This is an indication that internal organs might be involved.
- The entire surface of the skin may get darker over time, and contain patches of abnormally pale skin. This is referred to as the salt and pepper sign.
- Hair loss may occur.
- About 1% of people have Sjögren syndrome, a group of symptoms that include dry eyes and dry mucus membranes (such as those in the mouth).
- Inside the mouth, scleroderma can also cause changes that impair gum healing.
Bone and Muscle Symptoms
Changes in bones, joints, and muscles can cause the following symptoms:
- Mild arthritis. The condition is usually distributed equally on both sides of the body.
- Bone loss in the fingers. The destruction is not as severe as it is in rheumatoid arthritis, although the fingers may shorten over time.
- Trouble bending the fingers, if the disease has affected the tendons and joints.
- Muscle weakness may occur, especially near the shoulder and hip.
Digestive Tract Symptoms and Complications
Complications in the Upper Digestive Tract:
- Esophageal motility disorder develops when scarring in the muscles of the esophagus causes them to lose the ability to contract normally, resulting in trouble swallowing, heartburn, and gastroesophageal reflux (also known as GERD). Some experts believe that people with severe GERD may aspirate (breathe in) tiny amounts of stomach acid, which in turn may be a major cause of lung scarring.
- About 80% of people also experience impaired stomach activity. A delay in stomach emptying is very common.
- Some people develop "watermelon stomach" (medically referred to as CAVE syndrome), in which the stomach develops red-streaked areas from widened blood vessels. This causes a slow bleeding that can lead to anemia (low red blood cell counts) over time.
- There may be a higher risk for stomach cancer.
- Problems with movement of the food (motility) through the intestines also develop. This can lead to food being stuck in the esophagus and regurgitation. People may experience an increase in bacteria levels in their intestines as a result, and have trouble absorbing nutrients from foods through their intestines.
Complications in the Lower Digestive Tract
Complications in the lower digestive tract are uncommon. If they do occur, they can include the following:
- Scarring can cause blockages and constipation. In rare cases, constipation can become so severe that the bowel develops holes or tears, conditions that can be life threatening.
- Scarring can also interfere with the absorption of fats in the intestines. This can lead to an increase in the number of bacteria in the lower intestines, which can cause watery diarrhea.
- Fecal incontinence (the inability to control bowel movements) may be more common than studies indicate, because patients are reluctant to report it.
- Diverticular ulcerations, megacolon, and rectal prolapses can also occur.
Digestive complications can put people with scleroderma at risk for malnutrition and/or incomplete absorption of nutrients. Many people, however, have few or even no lower gastrointestinal symptoms.
Lung Symptoms and Complications
In severe cases, the lungs may be affected, causing shortness of breath or difficulty in taking deep breaths. Shortness of breath may be a symptom of pulmonary hypertension, an uncommon but life-threatening complication of systemic scleroderma.
Lung problems are usually the most serious complications of systemic scleroderma. They are now the leading cause of death in people with scleroderma. Two major lung conditions associated with scleroderma, pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension, can occur either together or independently.
Interstitial Pulmonary Fibrosis
Scleroderma involving the lung causes scarring (pulmonary fibrosis). Pulmonary fibrosis occurs in about 20% of people with scleroderma with limited skin disease and 80% of people with scleroderma with more severe disease (diffuse cutaneous), although its progression is very slow and people have a wide range of symptoms:
- Some people may not have any symptoms.
- When pulmonary fibrosis progresses, people develop a dry cough, shortness of breath, and reduced ability to exercise.
- Severe pulmonary fibrosis occurs in about 16% of people with diffuse scleroderma. About half of these people experience the most profound changes within the first 3 years of diagnosis. In such cases, lung function worsens rapidly over that period, and then the progression slows down.
Pulmonary fibrosis also places the person at higher risk for lung cancer.
Pulmonary fibrosis is strongly associated with the presence of gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). It is thought that lung involvement may be due to severe dysfunction in the esophagus, which causes people to aspirate tiny amounts of stomach acid.
The most important indication of future worsening in the lungs appears to be inflammation in the small airways (alveolitis). Doctors detect alveolitis by using a lung test called bronchoalveolar lavage.
Pulmonary hypertension is the narrowing of the pulmonary arteries in the lung. The narrowing of the arteries creates resistance and increases the workload of the heart. The heart becomes enlarged from pumping blood against the resistance. Some symptoms include chest pain, weakness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. The goal of treatment is to control the symptoms, although the disease usually develops into heart failure.
Pulmonary hypertension is caused by the narrowing of the pulmonary arteries in the lung. The narrowing of the arteries creates resistance to blood flow, increases the pressure in these arteries, and increases the workload of the heart. The heart becomes enlarged from pumping blood against this resistance. Symptoms of pulmonary hypertension include shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and fatigue. Shortness of breath, the primary symptom of pulmonary hypertension, worsens over time. Chest pain and ankle swelling are less common signs. The goal of treatment is to control the symptoms, although the disease eventually produces heart failure, usually after about 10 years.
Pulmonary hypertension can develop in one of two ways:
- As a complication of pulmonary fibrosis.
- As a direct outcome of the scleroderma process itself. In this case, it is most likely to develop in people with limited scleroderma after many years.
Kidney Symptoms and Complications
Signs of kidney problems, such as increased amounts of protein in the urine and high blood pressure (hypertension), are common in scleroderma (but somewhat less common in children). As with pulmonary hypertension, the degree of severity depends on whether the kidney problems are acute or chronic.
The typical course of kidney involvement in scleroderma is a slow progression that may produce some damage but does not usually lead to kidney failure.
The most serious kidney complication in scleroderma is renal crisis. It is a rare event that occurs in a small number of patients with diffuse scleroderma, most often early in the course of the disease. This syndrome includes a life-threatening condition called malignant hypertension, a sudden increase in blood pressure that can cause rapid kidney failure. This condition may be fatal. However, if the condition is successfully treated, it rarely recurs.
Until recently, renal crisis was the most common cause of death in scleroderma. Aggressive treatment with drugs that lower blood pressure, particularly those known as ACE inhibitors, is proving to be successful in reducing this risk of kidney damage and can reverse damage at times.
Heart Symptoms and Complications
Many people with even limited scleroderma have some sort of functional heart problem, although severe complications are uncommon and occur in only about 15% of people with diffuse scleroderma. As with other serious organ complications, they are more likely to occur within 3 years after the disease begins. Research has shown that patients with systemic scleroderma have a higher risk for atherosclerosis than healthy individuals.
Fibrosis of the Heart
The most direct effect of scleroderma on the heart is fibrosis (scarring). It may be very mild, or it can cause pain, low blood pressure, or other complications. By damaging muscle tissue, the scarring increases the risk for heart rhythm problems, problems in electrical conduction, and heart failure. The membrane around the heart can become inflamed, causing a condition called pericarditis.
Pulmonary hypertension and hypertension associated with kidney problems in scleroderma can also affect the heart. Long standing pulmonary hypertension can lead to heart failure.
Other Symptoms and Complications
Other complications of scleroderma may include the following:
- People with CREST may be at increased risk for biliary cirrhosis, an inflammatory autoimmune disorder of the liver.
- Nerve damage may occur in the extremities (legs, feet, arms, fingers, and toes), causing numbness and pain. This damage can progressively worsen and lead to severe open sores (ulcerations), particularly in the hands. The feet are less often affected, but when they are, the disease tends to affect the joints and cause pain.
- Bone loss (osteoporosis) can occur because of impaired blood flow.
- About 10% to 15% of people with scleroderma develop underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
- Erectile dysfunction, usually due to scarring of the penis, may be one of the first complications of the disease in men.
- Systemic scleroderma does not generally affect fertility in women. Pregnant women with scleroderma, however, have a slightly increased risk for premature birth and low-birth-weight babies. Although they can carry a baby to term, because complications such as kidney crisis can occur with the disease, pregnant women with scleroderma need to be monitored closely in a high-risk obstetric facility.
- More than one half of people with scleroderma are likely to experience significant depression. Researchers say it may be beneficial for people with scleroderma to be routinely screened for depression.
- About 30% of people with scleroderma are estimated to be at medium to high risk for malnutrition due to swallowing problems and other digestive complications.
- People with scleroderma may have a slightly increased risk for malignancy compared to the general population. Some specific cancers have been observed more frequently in people with scleroderma, including lung, esophageal, and lymphoma.