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Skin Fibrosis

This initial page was excerpted with permission from "Understanding Scleroderma" by Dolores Vazquez-Abad, M.D. Copyright © 1997. Items have been added to this page since then, as noted by dates. Scleroderma is highly variable. See Types of Scleroderma. Read Disclaimer
Physical Therapy
Oral Hygiene
Spontaneous Remission
Myositis (Muscle Inflammation)
Personal Storie

Overview: What is Fibrosis?

Fibrosis is a process that follows chronic inflammation. Fibrotic tissue is like a scar tissue, thick, and rigid, due to excess accumulation of protein below the skin.


Scleroderma is named after skin fibrosis, which is one of its most common and recognizable symptoms. Skin fibrosis eventually develops in most patients.

Sclero means "hard" and derma means "skin". The diagnosis of skin fibrosis is clinical and it requires no laboratory or special testing.

Doctors may request skin biopsies when there are unusual patterns or areas of skin that become tight and firm. (Also see Types of Scleroderma)

Novel Ideas: The Increased Skin Viscoelasticity - A Possible New Fifth Sign for the Very Early Diagnosis of Systemic Sclerosis. In combination with nailfold videocapillaroscopy, the increased skin viscoelasticity parameter could be proposed as the possible new fifth sign for the very early diagnosis of SSc. Current Rheumatology Reviews, 08/06/2014. (Also see: Skin Viscoelasticity)
Assessment of skin microcirculation by laser Doppler flowmetry (LDF) in systemic sclerosis patients (SSc). LDF is suitable for the assessment of the microangiopathy degree in SSc patients. Ter Media, Postep Derm Alergol, 03/05/2014.
Virtual skin biopsy by optical coherence tomography: the first quantitative imaging biomarker for scleroderma. The longitudinal study to test the sensitivity of the OCT based algorithm will tell whether this can used to determine changes in skin fibrosis over time and therefore used as an outcome measure in clinical trials and in clinical management. PubMed, 02/20/2013.


The usual presentation is distal to proximal: finger tips first with progression to the fingers, hands, forearms, and arms. By the time the skin of the arms is tight, there may be stiffness of the legs, thighs, and in some cases, chest and abdomen. The pattern of skin stiffness is usually bilateral and symmetrical.
The skin of the face and neck may be involved in the mild, also called localized Scleroderma (with only finger tightness), or in proximal or diffuse Scleroderma (tight skin proximal to the hands).
Effect of menopause on the modified Rodnan skin score (mRSS) in systemic sclerosis (SSc). Results suggest that menopause has a substantial effect on skin thickening in diffuse SSc, with postmenopausal status being associated with a lower mean mRSS compared to premenopausal status. PubMed, Arthritis Res Ther, 2014 Jun 23;16(3):R130.

Physical Therapy

At the first stages of skin tightening on the fingers, hands, and legs occupational and physical therapy are important in preventing, and ameliorating irreversible limiting contractures of the fingers.
Protection of the hand, and fingers by utilization of gloves when doing the dishes, gardening, and other physical activities prevents trauma that may break the skin, and produce slow healing ulcers with risk of infection.

Oral Hygiene

Oral hygiene may become difficult in cases where facial skin becomes tight. When the skin around the mouth becomes tight, it is called microstomia. You must make frequent appointments with your dentist, who should be aware of your disease and maintain communication with your doctor. (Also see Scleroderma Dental Involvement)

Treatments of Skin Fibrosis

Low dose UVA1 phototherapy has been found especially effective for morphea and also, in some cases, for systemic sclerosis.

When the skin tightening progresses quickly, or involves the chest and abdomen, your doctor may choose among the medications currently used for this condition.
Treating skin and lung fibrosis in systemic sclerosis: a future filled with promise? The most promising targets include inhibitors of B-cells, tyrosine kinases, 5-hydroxytryptamin receptors, interleukin-6 and Wnt signalling. PubMed, Curr Opin Pharmacol, 2013 Jun;13(3):455-62. (Also see: Pulmonary Fibrosis Research)
Low-dose UVA1 phototherapy for scleroderma: what benefit can we expect? In patients with morphea, a marked improvement was found in 77.8% patients and a moderate improvement was found in 11.1% patients. In the systemic scleroderma group, a patient with complete remission of the skin sclerosis is emphasized. PubMed, J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol, 2012 May;26(5):619-26. (Also see: Morphea Treatments)
UVA1 Phototherapy: A Concise and Practical Review. Phototherapy is an effective therapeutic option in scleroderma and should be considered among the first approaches in the management of localized scleroderma or morphea. UVA1 phototherapy has also been used for patients with limited and diffuse systemic sclerosis. SkinTherapyLetter, 06/21/12. (Also see: Morphea Treatments)
Treatment of Systemic Sclerosis Complications: What to Use When First-Line Treatment Fails—A Consensus of Systemic Sclerosis Experts. Symptoms treatment recommendations by over 100 scleroderma experts, for scleroderma renal crisis (SRC), digital ulcers (DU), pulmonary hypertension (PAH/PH), reflux, skin involvement, and arthritis. Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism Volume 42, Issue 1 , Pages 42-55, August 2012. (Also see: Scleroderma Renal Crisis, Digital Ulcers, Pulmonary Hypertension, Reflux, Skeletal Involvement, Scleroderma Treatments, and Dr. Janet Pope)


A multicenter double blinded study in 1997 showed that d-Penicillamine does not soften the skin, and that there was no improvement in internal organ involvement from d-Penicillamine. (Also see Clinical Trials: Ineffective or Unproven Treatments)

Cat by Lisa Volz, ISN ArtistA word of caution regarding single-center, retrospective studies. Patients frequently improve on placebo. Patients who are improving usually attribute it to their therapy and thus stay with it. Thus uncontrolled cohorts become enriched for "responders" while failures seek other paths. This dynamic underlies virtually all therapeutic "breakthroughs" which is why large scale double-blinded clinical trials are crucial for determining valid scleroderma treatments.


At present a similar study is being conducted to evaluate the role of Methotrexate. (1) (Also see Clinical Trial: Open Enrollments)

Spontaneous Remission

In addition, anecdotal reports of spontaneous remission are well known. Consequently, the initiation of specific therapy for this condition should be carefully evaluated and followed by your doctor. If started, all of these drugs require frequent laboratory monitoring for toxicity, and secondary effects. (1)

Myositis (Muscle Inflammation)

The skin tightening may occur rapidly, producing sudden increase in the pressure under the skin, and rubbing of the muscles and tendons below the skin. This may cause inflammatory muscle disease (Myositis), which frequently accompanies Scleroderma. In these cases, a blood test will show elevation of muscle enzymes.
Cessation of exercise, especially isotonic exercises that require repeated contraction of muscle groups, is mandatory. Isotonic exercises will increase the rubbing produced by the thickened skin, and augment the inflammation in the muscles. Your doctor may contemplate the use of steroids according to the degree of myositis. Repeated blood work for detection of muscles enzymes should be performed at your doctor's discretion. (Also see Skeletal Involvement)


Emerging roles of innate immune signaling and toll-like receptors (TLRs) in fibrosis and systemic sclerosis (SSc). Recent advances and emerging paradigms are highlighted for understanding the regulation, complex functional roles, and therapeutic potential of TLRs in SSc pathogenesis. PubMed, Curr Rheumatol Rep, 2015 Jan;17(1):474.
Myofibroblasts in cutaneous fibrosis originate from adiponectin-positive intradermal progenitors. There is a novel link between intradermal adipose loss and dermal fibrosis, and we demonstrate that adiponectin–positive intradermal progenitors give rise to dermal myofibroblasts. PubMed, Arthritis Rheumatol, 12/10/2014.
Lipoic acid (LA) plays a role in scleroderma: insights obtained from scleroderma (SSc) dermal fibroblasts. Dihydrolipoic acid (DHLA) not only acts as an antioxidant but also an antifibrotic since it has the ability to reverse the profibrotic phenotype of SSc dermal fibroblasts. Also thiol antioxidants, including N-acetylcysteine and LA/DHLA, could be beneficial for patients with SSc. PubMed, Arthritis Res Ther, 2014 Aug 15;16(5):411. (Also see: Lipoic Acid)
The expression profile of the toll-like receptor (TLR) family in scleroderma (SSc) dermal fibroblasts. TLR5 and TLR10 expression is increased in SSc fibroblasts. TLR5 itself may have suppressive effects on collagen expression, and its overexpression in SSc fibroblasts may be the negative feedback against tissue fibrosis. Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology, 14 June 2014.
What does global gene expression profiling tell us about the pathogenesis of systemic sclerosis? Global gene expression profiling in skin and peripheral blood can contribute to a better understanding of SSc pathogenesis and identify novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets. PubMed, Curr Opin Rheumatol, 2013 Nov;25(6):686-91.
Preclinical and translational research to discover potentially effective antifibrotic therapies in systemic sclerosis (SSc). There is a high unmet clinical need for effective antifibrotic therapies in systemic sclerosis (SSc), and in parallel a rapid development in the identification of potential molecular targets in preclinical research. This could increase the possibility to develop successful drugs against the fibrotic manifestations of SSc. PubMed, Curr Opin Rheumatol, 2013 Nov;25(6):679-85. (Also see: Scleroderma Clinical Trials)
Scientists identify agent that can block fibrosis of skin, lungs. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have identified an agent, E4 (which is a piece of protein or peptide derived from endostatin) that in lab tests protected the skin and lungs from fibrosis. MedicalXpress, 05/30/12. (Also see: Pulmonary Fibrosis Treatments)

Personal Stories of Skin Fibrosis

Alana: Scleroderma (Peru) I cannot open my mouth completely, I have lost strength in my hands, I have breathing problems, my face looks different, my skin is really tight and I have lost my appetite...
(Español/Spanish) Alana: Paciente Nuevo con Esclerodermia (Peru) Le dije que ya no podía abrir la boca completamente, he perdido la fuerza de las manos, tengo problemas respiratorios, mi rosto está diferente, mi piel está dura y he perdido casi el apetito...
Alexandra: Scleroderma My scleroderma symptoms arrived in great style: reflux, itchy swollen skin, joint and muscle pain and tiredness. Plus hundreds of little red spots (telangiectasia). My mouth was tight and getting smaller too...
Allen's Mom: Son has Scleroderma With his tightness of skin he has a very hard time bending, walking up the stairs and for the most part he cannot walk for more than a few minutes without his legs giving out...
Dawn M: Linear/Systemic Scleroderma My family and I were informed by the doctors, that the localized/linear form of scleroderma that I was diagnosed with, would never progress into the potentially fatal, systemic form...
Gioia: Systemic Progressive Sclerosis (Italy) I was unable to swallow food, and a few times I was at risk of suffocating, and I also had terrible ulcers in my hands...
(Italiano) Gioia: Sclerosi Sistemica Progressiva (Italia) Poi però mi sono resa conto a mie spese che non era così, non riuscivo più a deglutire il cibo, più di qualche volta ho rischiato di soffocarmi, per non parlare delle ulcere alle mani...
Heather A: Scleroderma (South Africa) My fingers started to curl up and I could not wear any rings on my fingers anymore as they were so swollen...
Kamlesh: Husband of Limited Scleroderma Patient (India) In a pulmonary function test, there was severe restriction and severe obstruction...
Karligash: Systemic Scleroderma (Republic of Kazakhstan) Young, beautiful, full of hope and expectations for my life, for happiness and love — that was me, nineteen years of age...
(Russian) Карлыгаш: системная склеродермия (Республика Казахстан) Молодая,красивая,полная ожидания от жизни счастья,любви такая я была в 19 лет...
Kristi U: Systemic Scleroderma We sold our motel business because it hurt me so bad to work each and every day...
Laira: MCTD, Scleroderma, SLE, Lupus, CREST, Lymphoma I was just seventeen when I was told I had rheumatoid arthritis...
Leslie R: Scleroderma, Vitiligo, Lupus, Anemia, Hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes He told me that I have scleroderma and explained what this disease is about. After suffering so long I finally got some answers...
Manu: Daughter of Patient with Systemic Scleroderma (Italy) I recently lost my father, and in his last moments he suffered very much. He was affected by systemic scleroderma that began with simple inflammation of his hand in November of 2006...
(Italiano) Manu: Figlia di Padre Malato di Sclerodermia Sistemica (Italia) Ho perso mio papà una settimana fa, dopo atroci sofferenze. Era affetto da sclerodermia sistemica iniziata con un banale gonfiore di una mano nel novembre 2006...
Matilda: Systemic Scleroderma (South Africa) I don't think there is a lot of support in South Africa and I would actually like to start a group where people with the same disease can meet and discuss how they cope with the illness...
Sheila Z: Scleroderma I would like to first say that this site has been a great help for me to understand what is happening to my body and my life...
Sibel: Scleroderma and Raynaud's (Turkey) Changes in my skin were making me look different in the mirror...
Sue D: Diffuse Scleroderma Pain developed in my hands, then I noticed pain in my knees, then my shoulders, down my back, elbows, hips, feet...
Susan L: Diffuse Scleroderma I first noticed the swelling in my hands and feet shortly after my daughter was born in 2005, and thought that it was post-pregnancy fluid...
Theon: Scleroderma and Pneumothorax This is very hard for me, because I was a very active woman, and then suddenly I am totally and completely disabled...
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