Connective Tissue Disease: Symptoms and Causes

The tissue that produces collagen is called connective tissue.

Connective tissue is a fibrous tissue that supports and binds other tissues in the body. It mostly consists of collagen, but it also contains elastin, which helps connective tissue stretch and return to its normal shape after stretching or contracting. The collagen in connective tissue is usually arranged in long parallel bundles so that the connective tissue can withstand tension.

Collagen is found in many tissues in the body, such as the skin, blood vessels and muscles. Collagen is a protein that gives structure to our bones, skin, muscles, ligaments and tendons. It has a higher tensile strength than steel wire with the same diameter because of its cross-linking between chain molecules that are made from amino acids.

Connective tissue disorders can affect multiple body parts — including your heart and your skin — at the same time.

Connective tissue disease is an umbrella term that encompasses a group of disorders that cause changes in your connective tissue. Connective tissue is a part of the body that supports other tissues and organs. It’s found throughout the body, including bone, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, fat, and blood vessels.

Most connective tissue diseases are autoimmune disorders. This means they occur when the immune system attacks itself. There are many types of connective tissue diseases. Some are mild and some are serious or fatal. The most common types include:

  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (sle)
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis (ra)
  • Scleroderma
  • Polymyositis and Dermatomyositis

While there is no cure for connective tissue disorders, treatments can help to relieve symptoms and prevent some of the more serious complications that may result from these conditions.

Some common treatments for connective tissue disorders include:

  • physical therapy
  • corticosteroids and other medications
  • surgery to fix damaged joints or tendons

What are the symptoms of connective tissue diseases?

The symptoms of connective tissue diseases vary depending on the type. The symptoms may also vary from person to person. For some people, the disease may be mild with few or no symptoms. For others, the disease can lead to significant complications and disability.

If you have a connective tissue disease, your symptoms may come and go over time. They may start suddenly or develop gradually.

Symptoms of connective tissue diseases include:

  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Joint stiffness (especially in the morning)

Management and Treatment of connective tissue diseases?

It is important to work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that best meets your needs. The plan may include:

  • Medications. Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve) and acetaminophen, help relieve joint pain and inflammation from some types of connective tissue diseases. NSAIDs, corticosteroids, DMARDs and other prescription drugs are sometimes used to treat more severe symptoms.
  • Physical therapy. Rehabilitation exercises can help maintain mobility and reduce pain in joints affected by connective tissue diseases, as well as strengthen muscles in the body.
  • Surgery. Joint replacement surgery or reconstruction surgery can be used to repair joints that have been damaged by arthritis or other connective tissue diseases.

 Prevention

While connective tissue diseases can’t be prevented, there are steps you can take to avoid worsening symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Wear sturdy shoes, particularly if you have foot problems. This will help prevent fallen arches or bunions.
  • Avoid overuse injuries by increasing physical activities slowly and learning proper techniques with help from a physical therapist or athletic trainer.
  • Don’t smoke. If you already smoke, quit now to improve your health and appearance.
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure (wear sunscreen and a hat), which may contribute to the development of skin lesions common in lupus erythematosus (LE). If possible, stay out of the midday sun as well as tanning salons.
  • Eat a healthy diet that’s low in trans fats and saturated fats but rich in fish oils that can reduce inflammation, such as salmon and tuna. Also eat vegetables high in antioxidants — including carrots, squash, spinach and red peppers — that may protect against heart disease associated with some connective tissue disorders.

When to see a doctor?

You should see a doctor if:

  • You experience symptoms of a connective tissue disease, such as Raynaud’s phenomenon, scleroderma, or Sjögren’s syndrome.
  • You have a family history of one of these disorders.
  • You experience symptoms of an autoimmune disorder affecting your joints, muscles, or connective tissues.
  • You have a family history of autoimmune rheumatic diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
  • You’re at risk for developing certain connective tissue diseases because you’re in a high-risk group (such as being over the age of 65).

Research has shown that working with a rheumatologist experienced in treating connective tissue disease can help you better manage symptoms and feel better. A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in the treatment of connective tissue diseases.

Rheumatologists have special experience in diagnosing and treating these conditions. They also use their experience to find new treatments that can improve quality of life for people with connective tissue diseases.

Easing pain and swelling, as well as preventing further joint damage, are the primary goals of treating connective tissue diseases. Treatment is likely to be complex, requiring a combination of various options. Your doctor will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan that takes into account your symptoms and diagnosis.

What autoimmune diseases are associated with connective tissue disease?

Connective tissue disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own connective tissues. The autoimmune reaction can harm the body’s joints and organs, especially when left untreated. Connective tissue diseases are never contagious, which means they cannot be passed from person to person.

The most common autoimmune diseases associated with connective tissue disease include:

  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Scleroderma
  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Polymyositis and dermatomyositis (PM/DM)
  • Mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD)
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica

Which syndrome is most strongly associated with connective tissue problems?

Marfan syndrome is a condition that affects the body’s connective tissue. Connective tissue holds all the body’s cells, organs and tissue together. It also plays an important role in helping the body grow and develop properly.

Marfan syndrome most often affects the heart, eyes, blood vessels and skeleton. People with Marfan syndrome are usually tall and thin, with long arms, legs, fingers and toes. The severity of Marfan syndrome varies from person to person.

People with Marfan syndrome are at risk of serious complications involving the heart, blood vessels and eyes that can be life-threatening if not detected early on and managed by a doctor who specializes in this disorder (geneticist or cardiologist). However, many people live full lives with little impact on their daily activities when they have regular medical care to treat any problems that occur.

Can connective tissue disease go away?

If you’ve been diagnosed with connective tissue disease, the good news is that there are treatment options for your symptoms. You’ll probably get a prescription drug like hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), which will help curb joint pain and swelling. Steroids like prednisone can also help treat connective tissue disease symptoms, such as fatigue and swollen joints. If you have severe connective tissue problems, biologic drugs may be an option as well.

The bad news is that no matter what combination of therapies you try, a cure for connective tissue disease is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The good news? Doctors have made significant progress in helping patients manage their conditions and live more comfortably with their connective tissue diseases.