What is Diffuse Scleroderma?

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  • Written By: Allison Boelcke
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 June 2019
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Scleroderma is a condition in which the body’s tissue gradually becomes thick and rigid. There are two main forms of the condition: localized and diffuse. Localized scleroderma tends to be less serious because it primarily affects the skin. Diffuse scleroderma, also referred to as systemic sclerosis, is the more severe form of the condition and not only can cause rigidity of the skin, but also of the connective tissues surrounding the internal organs.

One of the first signs of diffuse scleroderma are noticeable changes in the appearance and texture of the skin. The fingers and other limbs may become puffy and the skin may have a shiny appearance and patches of hardened skin. The skin may also start to have a tighter texture which makes moving the limbs difficult or painful.

As the condition starts to worsen, it can spread to other connective tissues and affect the internal organs. The exact symptoms typically vary on the individual because the condition may affect different organs in different cases. One common symptom of diffuse scleroderma is a condition known as Raynaud’s phenomenon, in which the blood vessels in the hands and feet start to become narrowed and result in tingling, numbness, or pain in the fingers or toes. Scleroderma that causes thickening of the connective tissues of the internal organs may also cause the affected organ, such as the heart or kidneys, to not be able to function correctly.


The cause of diffuse scleroderma is generally the result of the body making an excessive amount of collagen, a tough protein that naturally occurs in the skin and connective tissues. This excessive production of collagen is thought to occur because of a malfunction in the body’s immune system, the natural set of mechanisms the body uses to protect itself and fight off disease. After the immune system begins to malfunction in sclerosis cases, it is thought to perhaps cause the body to make more collagen than necessary, although it is not conclusively proven why this occurs. Some medical researchers believe this may be the result of genetics because the condition may occur in families.

Diffuse scleroderma does not have a definitive cure to stop the immune system from making the body produce excessive amounts of collagen. Some of the symptoms of the condition may be able to be treated to improve quality of life. Immunosuppressant medications, drugs which prevent the immune system from performing its normal responses, may be taken in order to prevent the immune system from continuing to fight against the body; however, this may make a person more likely to become severely ill from common diseases or viruses that are usually not serious due to the immune system’s ability to fight them off. Physical therapists may also work with sclerosis patients to help them learn how to more easily maneuver their tightened limbs and perform everyday activities.



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