Systemic scleroderma is an autoimmune disorder that affects the skin and internal organs. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body’s own tissues and organs. The word “scleroderma” means hard skin in Greek, and the condition is characterized by the buildup of scar tissue (fibrosis) in the skin and other organs. The condition is also called systemic sclerosis because the fibrosis can affect organs other than the skin. Fibrosis is due to the excess production of a tough protein called collagen, which normally strengthens and supports connective tissues throughout the body.
The signs and symptoms of systemic scleroderma usually begin with episodes of Raynaud phenomenon, which can occur weeks to years before fibrosis. In Raynaud phenomenon, the fingers and toes of affected individuals turn white or blue in response to cold temperature or other stresses. This effect occurs because of problems with the small vessels that carry blood to the extremities. Another early sign of systemic scleroderma is puffy or swollen hands before thickening and hardening of the skin due to fibrosis. Skin thickening usually occurs first in the fingers (called sclerodactyly) and may also involve the hands and face. In addition, people with systemic scleroderma often have open sores (ulcers) on their fingers, painful bumps under the skin (calcinosis), or small clusters of enlarged blood vessels just under the skin (telangiectasia).