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The Rheumatology Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center is one of the nation’s leading clinical and research centers for rheumatic diseases, including scleroderma (also called systemic sclerosis).
Our experts combine compassionate care with the latest medical resources for accurate diagnostic services and effective treatments that make a difference in patients’ lives.
Advanced Treatment for Systemic Sclerosis
Systemic sclerosis, also known as scleroderma, is a rare autoimmune disease that affects the skin and connective tissue, which is tissue that surrounds and supports other tissues and organs. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system, which normally protects against infections and foreign substances, mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues.
Causes and Risk Factors of Systemic Sclerosis
Systemic sclerosis develops when the body produces too much collagen, a protein that provides structure to all body tissues. Experts aren’t certain what causes the body to overproduce collagen.
Scientists have found several genetic variations that might affect the risk of developing systemic sclerosis, but their exact role is not yet known. Other risk factors include:
- Exposure to certain pesticides or solvents
- Previous use of chemotherapy medications such as Bleomycin
Symptoms of Systemic Sclerosis
The signs and symptoms of systemic sclerosis vary, depending on which part of the body is affected. Some commonly known symptoms include:
- Tight, hardened patches of skin
- Limited movement of areas with tightened skin
- Pain in the joints
- Numbness, pain, or color changes in fingers or toes in response to cold temperatures or emotional stress, also known as Raynaud’s disease
- Acid reflux
- Intestinal problems such as diarrhea or constipation
- Problems with the heart, lungs, or kidneys
Diagnosing Systemic Sclerosis
At UT Southwestern, patients with symptoms of systemic sclerosis see our rheumatologists (specialists in autoimmune diseases and diseases that affect joints, bones, and muscles) and dermatologists. Our doctors conduct a thorough evaluation, which includes a:
- Physical exam to detect skin changes
- Discussion of personal and family medical history
- Discussion of symptoms
Because systemic sclerosis can affect several areas, our doctors might recommend one or more tests to confirm a diagnosis. Possible tests include:
- Blood tests to check levels of certain antibodies produced by the immune system
- Biopsy (small sample) of skin from an affected area to analyze under a microscope for abnormalities
- Imaging, such as an X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan, to examine the lungs for damage
Treatment for Systemic Sclerosis
Although there is no cure for systemic sclerosis, treatments using the most advanced therapeutic techniques available aim to help reduce symptoms, slow the progression of the disease, and help prevent complications.
UT Southwestern rheumatologists work to develop treatment plans tailored to each patient’s specific needs. Treatment options include:
- Blood pressure medications that dilate blood vessels
- Immunosuppressant medications to reduce the strength of the immune system
- Acid relievers to treat acid reflux
- Flu and pneumonia vaccines
- Antibiotic treatment for fingertip ulcers caused by Raynaud’s disease
- Pain relievers, either over-the-counter or prescription
- Physical or occupational therapy to improve strength, mobility, and function
- Surgery, as needed, for finger ulcerations
- Lung transplant surgery for people who have pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs) or interstitial lung disease
- Referrals to physicians as needed for organ involvement, such as gastroenterology, pulmonary, and cardiology
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