DermNet NZ

Facts about the skin from DermNet New Zealand Trust. Topic index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Systemic sclerosis

Systemic sclerosis (systemic scleroderma) is a multisystem disease that results in fibrosis and vascular abnormalities in association with autoimmune changes. These lead to breakdown of the skin, subcutaneous tissue, muscles and internal organs (e.g. digestive tract, heart, lungs and kidneys). The skin becomes thickened and tightly bound to underlying structures.

Localised scleroderma (also known as morphoea) is an unrelated skin disease and is confined to the skin.

Calcinosis X-ray
CREST syndrome
Systemic sclerosis
Ulcerated and resorbing fingertips
Features of systemic sclerosis

Who gets it and what is the cause?

Systemic sclerosis is a rare condition that may occur in people of any race, although it is less common in people of Asian descent. It appears to be three to four times more common in women than men and is comparatively rare in children. It usually starts between 30-40 years in women and later in men.

Systemic sclerosis is classified as an autoimmune disease of an unknown cause. This means the immune system is reacting against one's own tissues. It appears to involve some injury to the cells that line blood vessels (endothelial cells) and this results in excessive activation of the dermal connective tissue cells, the fibroblasts. Fibroblasts normally produce collagen and other glycosamine proteins. Certain factors have been identified that may trigger the disease. These include injury, drugs (e.g. vitamin K, cocaine, penicillamine, appetite suppressants and some chemotherapeutic agents), and chemicals (e.g. silica, organic solvents, pesticides, aliphatic hydrocarbons and epoxy resin).

What are the signs and symptoms of systemic sclerosis?

Raynaud phenomenon is usually the first symptom of systemic sclerosis. Patients experience episodes of vasospasm , which causes blood vessels in the fingers and toes to constrict. As less blood is reaching these extremities the skin changes colour to white and the fingers and toes may feel cold and numb. As they warm up, they go blue and then red before returning to normal again.

Normal hand on thermal imaging
Normal hand
Raynaud phenomenon on thermal imaging
Raynaud phenomenon
Thermal imaging (heat sensing)

Other skin changes include:

In addition to the skin changes, the disease affects many other organs. Problems that may occur include:

What is the CREST syndrome?

CREST syndrome (also called CRST syndrome) is a limited form of systemic sclerosis in which there is Calcinosis, Raynaud's phenomenon, oEsophageal involvement, Sclerodactyly and Telangiectases. Characteristically, the telangiectases are well-defined and flat (matt).

What tests should be done?

The diagnosis is generally made from the patient's history and the findings on examination of the skin and other organs. A skin biopsy is not usually necessary but characteristically shows excessive ground substance and odd-looking endothelial cells in the dermis and later deposits of collagen. The epidermis is usually atrophic.

Up to 90% have elevated antinuclear antibodies (ANA) but these are less frequent than in the more common connective tissue disease, systemic lupus erythematosus. Thyroid antibodies may occur and result in an under-active thyroid gland

Anticentromere antibodies are characteristic of CREST syndrome and may be present in Raynaud phenomenon before systemic sclerosis appears. Scl-70 is unique to systemic sclerosis and is more likely to be associated with severe systemic sclerosis involving the lungs. Many other less specific antibodies have been reported to be associated with different patterns of disease.

Anaemia, raised sedimentation rate (ESR) and increased gamma globulins (hypergammaglobulinaemia) and varying immune abnormalities are quite common especially positive rheumatoid factors.

What is the treatment of systemic sclerosis?

There is no cure for systemic sclerosis and treatment is aimed at controlling symptoms and preventing complications. Because the symptoms of systemic sclerosis are so diverse a team of medical specialists is usually necessary.

It is absolutely essential to discontinue smoking.

The mainstay of treatment is with immune modulating agents, including:

Organ Treatment
  • Topical corticosteroids and emollients for itchy skin
  • Avoid cold temperatures and wear warm clothing including gloves and socks to prevent Raynaud phenomenon. Medical treatment includes calcium channel blockers, aspirin and vasodilating drugs including nifedipine and iloprost infusions.
  • Calcinosis may be treated with calcium channel blockers, anticoagulants, colchicine and intralesional steroids and possibly excision of deposits
  • Research suggests intensive ultraviolet radiation treatment (phototherapy) with UVA1 (340-400nm) can soften fibrosis. This is not yet available in New Zealand
  • Endothelin receptor blockers such as bosentan have been reported to be useful in some patients
  • Statins such as atorvastatin may be of benefit because of anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties.
Joint and muscle
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents
  • D-penicillamine
  • Proton pump inhibitor, e.g. omeprazole
  • Cisapride
  • Metoclopramide
  • Surgery for strictures
  • ACE inhibitors
  • Dialysis

Related information


On DermNet NZ:

Other websites:

Books about skin diseases:

See the DermNet NZ bookstore

Author: Vanessa Ngan, staff writer

DermNet NZ does not provide an online consultation service.
If you have any concerns with your skin or its treatment, see a dermatologist for advice.