The human body is lined with more than 100,000 miles of veins, capillaries, and blood vessels. These intricate pathways carry blood throughout the body to filter it, heal wounds, and oxygenate our cells. With scleroderma, the overproduction of collagen significantly damages the blood vessels, making it an obstacle for blood to do its job correctly. As a result, an individual with scleroderma goes through many complications, from Raynaud’s phenomenon to ulcers. These problems stem from lack of blood flow. There are some precautionary measures to be taken to help prevent severe damage.
Raynaud’s phenomenon is one of the first symptoms many people experience before their diagnosis. Primary Raynaud’s is characterized by fingers or toes turning white when exposed to cold air. Secondary Raynaud’s is more advanced, and toes and fingers turn blue and are painful when they become cold. Cold environments, as well as stress, are an enemy to those with scleroderma because they trigger attacks.
Digital ulcers are one of the most uncomfortable symptoms of scleroderma that warrant sleepless nights and tears of agony. Almost 60 percent of individuals with scleroderma suffer from an ulcer at some point in their journey. They are caused by the lack of blood flow to the skin. The skin tissue is essentially “suffocated” from the adequate blood it needs to keep it alive; little by little, an open wound forms. These pesky sores appear on pressure points throughout the body where the skin is tightened and stretched over knuckles, elbows, or knees. The skin is so tight in these areas that they break open.
Some less-common forms of treatment exist that have shown success. Hyperbaric wound chambers have been shown to have success in treating severe ulcers. Sitting in one of these chambers exponentially increases the oxygen to your tissues, giving it the adequate blood it needs to heal. Digital sympathectomies cut scar tissue out of the arteries and veins in the wrist to provide the hand with better blood flow.
Over the years, I have found three things to be helpful in speeding up the healing process of an ulcer:
1. Keep it dry
An ulcer is like a gremlin; it doesn’t do well when it gets wet! If any of my ulcers get wet, they ache painfully when I get out of the shower. They also tend to leak pus. So, when taking a shower or washing hands, try to keep it covered with gauze or a Band-Aid. I’ve showered with one hand in the air many times to avoid this problem. I also tie plastic grocery bags around the hand that has the sore. Keeping it dry seems to help it heal more quickly because I’m giving the ulcer a chance to form a scab. That’s the goal here, so the wound can close.
2. Apply a small amount of medical-grade honey
Honey has been used since ancient Egyptian times for its antibacterial properties. I use organic mānuka honey on my ulcers, and this has been a lifesaver. It creates a nice “scab” within the ulcer that takes some of the pain away. Little by little, it helps close the wound. I simply put a small drop on a Band-Aid and leave it on for the day.
3. Avoid Raynaud’s attacks when possible
Thankfully, there are different medications prescribed to increase blood flow. Avoiding caffeine and cigarette smoking is ESSENTIAL to preventing Raynaud’s attacks because they constrict your vessels. As soon as my Raynaud’s flares up, my ulcers start aching badly. So, keeping your hands warm in grocery stores, movie theaters, or anywhere cold will save you some agony.
Ulcers are a test of true strength and patience. From big to small, they all cause significant amounts of pain. There are options to choose from to treat them, but one must be persistent in taking precautionary measures.
Note: Scleroderma News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Scleroderma News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to scleroderma.