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Diagnosing Scleroderma

A new diagnosis of scleroderma doesn’t have to be overwhelming, even though the disease itself is complex. Diagnosing scleroderma is easiest when a person has typical symptoms and rapid skin thickening. In other cases, a diagnosis may take several months as the disease unfolds and reveals itself, thereby enabling the doctor to rule out other potential causes. In some cases, a diagnosis is never made, because the symptoms that prompted the visit to the doctor go away on their own.

A scleroderma diagnosis is based largely on a thorough evaluation of your medical history, symptoms and findings from the physical exam. Your doctor may also order several lab tests to support the diagnostic process. Depending on your particular symptoms, the diagnosis may be made by a general internist, a dermatologist, an orthopaedist, a respirologist or a rheumatologist. 

Lab tests commonly confirm the presence of specific antibodies in scleroderma patients. Antitopoisomerase-1 (Anti-Scl-70) antibodies appear in up to 30 percent of people with diffuse systemic sclerosis, while anticentromere antibodies are found in the blood of many people with limited systemic sclerosis. Several other scleroderma specific antibodies also exist, although they are less common. When present, these other antibodies are helpful in clinical diagnostics and may provide additional information about specific organ damage risks. Because not all people with scleroderma have these antibodies and because not all people with the antibodies have scleroderma, lab test results alone cannot confirm a scleroderma diagnosis. A variety of other diagnostic tools are available and may be requested by your doctor.

Some patients present with some, but not all, of the symptoms related to scleroderma. Diagnostic tests are useful in confirming or ruling out a scleroderma diagnosis. These patients may fit into one of the following disease groups:

  • Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease (UCTD): UCTD is a term for patients who have some signs and symptoms of various related diseases, but not enough symptoms of any one particular disease to make a definitive diagnosis. In these patients the condition hasn’t differentiated into a particular connective tissue disease. Over time, UCTD typically follows three distinct paths: spontaneous improvement, continued undifferentiated symptoms, or progression into a systemic disease such as systemic sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, or rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Overlap syndrome: a disease combination in which patients have symptoms and lab findings characteristic of two or more conditions.

Scleroderma Signs & Symptoms

Scleroderma is highly individualized, so it affects patients in different ways. Symptoms and severity of the symptoms differ greatly.


The most commonly identified symptom of scleroderma is the gradual thickening and tightening of the skin. Ulcers, especially on the fingertips, are common. They can be slow to heal because of poor circulation.


This is a very common symptom and is generally believed that 98% of scleroderma patients have  Raynaud’s Phenomenon.

(See the information on CREST).


Muscles weaken and can become painful.


Joints can become stiff and sore, similar in many respects to arthritis.


Swallowing difficulties can result from the narrowing of the esophagus. Digestive difficulties range from poor absorption of nutrients to slow movement of food. The weakened muscles of the gastrointestinal tract can lead to a “backwash of stomach acid.”


Sjogren’s Syndrome is dry eyes and mouth due to a decrease in secretions of the tear ducts and salivary glands.


Because of tightening of facial skin, dental health may be compromised. Dry mouth can cause difficulties in swallowing, which in turn may lead to an increase in tooth decay.


A build up of fibrosis (scarring) in the lungs and/or weakened respiratory muscles leads to shortness of breath and persistent coughing. The fibrosis affects oxygen absorption and may lead to Pulmonary  Arterial Hypertension.


Early signs of kidney damage may include high blood pressure and an excess of protein in the urine (detected by a urine test). Renal crisis is a severe complication of scleroderma and unless treated promptly may lead to kidney failure.


The muscles that surround the heart may become thickened and scarred, decreasing heart contractions. This can cause chest pains and irregular heartbeats.


These include extreme fatigue, general weakness, weight loss, hair loss and vague aches in muscles, bones and joints.

* Report any change in symptoms or new systems to your doctor.

Contact Us

Please contact us for more information.

Scleroderma Association of Saskatchewan
54 – 4901 Child Avenue,
Regina, SK
S4X 4T7

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