Between your organs lies connective tissue, such as fat, cartilage, and bone. Just like any part of the body, this protein-rich tissue is susceptible to disease that can affect your skin, joints, and much more. When this tissue becomes inflamed, this results in a connective tissue disease.
There are over 200 types of connective tissue diseases spanning from scleroderma to rheumatoid arthritis. Connective tissue diseases can be genetic or autoimmune; in some cases, there could be more than one cause and this is classified as mixed connective tissue disease.1
To learn more about the types of connective tissue disease, their causes, and how to manage this condition, read on.
Types of connective tissue diseases
There are hundreds of different types of connective tissue disorders, some key examples include:1
- Scleroderma - the connective tissue in the skin produces too much collagen leading to scarring and thickening of the tissue.2³ There are two types of scleroderma which differ in terms of the location affected. Typically, symptoms can include heartburn, difficulty swallowing, and in more fatal cases, organ damage.2,3
- Rheumatoid arthritis - due to inflammation in the connective tissue between the joints, specifically in the synovial membrane. The immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy lining in between the joints. Early signs include fatigue, joint pain, and difficulty moving.4
- Lupus - another autoimmune disease that can impact several parts of your body from your brain to your kidney. If you have lupus you may experience pain in your joints, extreme fatigue, and muscle pain.
Other connective tissue diseases include:
- Marfan syndrome
- Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA)
- Mixed connective tissue disease
- Churg-Strauss syndrome
- Microscopic polyangiitis
- Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
In many connective tissue diseases, there is no cure. Therefore, seeing your doctor to get a diagnosis as soon as possible is crucial to ensure treatment is most effective and to help manage your symptoms.5
Causes of connective tissue diseases
Connective tissue diseases can arise due to genetics, and certain individuals may be more susceptible, such as people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB).1,5 The cause of scleroderma and several other autoimmune diseases is unknown, however, certain factors have been associated with a higher risk of developing connective tissue disease. These include smoking, obesity, and exposure to certain chemicals.2,3
Signs and symptoms of connective tissue diseases
Depending on the connective tissue disease you have, symptoms may vary but signs that are universal in many connective tissue diseases include:
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Scarring of skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Weight loss6
One of the most serious complications of connective tissue disease are lung disorders such as interstitual lung disease. This is when tissues of the lungs are scarred, this makes the lungs less flexible and causes difficulty in breathing.6
If you think you are experiencing any of these symptoms, visit your doctor for a diagnosis as you may have a connective tissue disease.1
Management and treatment for connective tissue diseases
Depending on the type of connective tissue disease you are diagnosed with, treatment will vary. Treatment methods for connective tissue diseases span a wide array of possibilities and can include biological treatments such as injecting antibodies or taking painkillers such as ibuprofen to help relieve the symptoms of pain.7
Your doctor may even suggest seeing a physiotherapist to help with the movement and flexibility of your joints. Other treatment includes seeing an occupational therapist, surgery, dietary advice, and nutritional supplements.7
For scleroderma, treatment includes topical creams to treat the skin. If the patient also has interstitial lung disease, which is commonly seen in patients with scleroderma, chemotherapy medication may be prescribed. It is important to take the correct dose of medication advised by your doctor and make the appropriate adjustments to your lifestyle to help manage symptoms.
Additionally, medication to help with inflammation such as ibuprofen is also commonly used for patients with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.7 Discuss your options with your doctor to discover which treatment will work best for the connective tissue disorder you have.
Getting a diagnosis can be difficult as there are several types of connective tissue diseases with overlapping symptoms, for example, joint pain may be common across many connective tissue diseases. However, with the aid of blood tests and analysis of skin samples, it can be possible to differentiate the conditions and your doctor can help identify and diagnose your connective tissue disorder.1,2
In the case of scleroderma, the doctor will typically suggest a physical examination, by assessing the skin and the clinical features present in scleroderma the doctor may be able to identify the condition and suggest appropriate treatment accordingly. Additionally, your doctor may request lung tests to ensure your lungs are working properly and x-rays to observe any scarring or tissue damage to your lungs.
Similarly, for rheumatoid arthritis patients, the doctor will also conduct a physical examination but in this case with an emphasis on your joints and their mobility. Scans of your joints, blood tests, and physical tests may all be used to come to a diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis.4
Lupus diagnosis also requires blood tests and scans of your organs to ensure they are functioning properly and tissue is normal. Therefore, many connective tissues can be diagnosed using blood tests, scans, and physical examinations.8
Connective tissue diseases can give rise to various complications. One significant complication is the development of pulmonary issues, such as interstitial lung disease, where scarring of lung tissues leads to breathing difficulties.6 These diseases can also result in organ damage and dysfunction, particularly in conditions like scleroderma, where excessive collagen production can cause scarring and thickening of the skin and affect organs like the heart, kidneys, and lungs.9
Furthermore, the chronic pain, fatigue, and limitations in physical mobility associated with connective tissue diseases can have a significant impact on mental health, potentially leading to feelings of depression and reduced quality of life.10 Monitoring and managing potential complications through early intervention and appropriate treatment are crucial for minimizing their impact on overall health and well-being.10
How can I prevent connective tissue diseases?
While connective tissue diseases cannot be entirely prevented, adopting a healthy lifestyle can potentially reduce the risk. Maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular exercise, avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and minimizing exposure to harmful chemicals can contribute to overall well-being and potentially lower the likelihood of developing these diseases. Additionally, managing stress levels and maintaining a strong immune system may also play a role in reducing the risk.2-7
How common are connective tissue diseases?
Connective tissue diseases encompass a wide range of disorders, and their prevalence varies. While some diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are more common and affect a larger number of individuals, many other connective tissue diseases are relatively rare. It is important to consult with healthcare professionals or refer to reliable sources for accurate information on the prevalence of a specific connective tissue disease.1,2
Who is at risk of connective tissue diseases?
Connective tissue diseases can affect individuals of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. While the exact causes are not fully understood, certain factors may increase the risk.2 Genetic predisposition, family history of connective tissue diseases, exposure to environmental triggers, hormonal factors, and certain lifestyle choices such as smoking and obesity can contribute to a higher susceptibility. However, it is essential to note that anyone can be at risk, and early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for effectively managing these diseases.2,3
What can I expect if I have a connective tissue disease?
The experience of living with a connective tissue disease can vary depending on the specific condition and its severity. Common symptoms include joint and muscle pain, fatigue, skin abnormalities, and in some cases, organ involvement.6 The progression of the disease and its impact on daily life can differ significantly among individuals. Collaborating closely with your doctor to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses specific symptoms and challenges associated with the connective tissue disease is important for managing your condition effectively.6
When should I see a doctor?
If you are experiencing persistent symptoms such as joint pain, muscle pain, unexplained fatigue, skin abnormalities, or any other concerning signs, it is advisable to seek medical attention. Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial for connective tissue diseases.5 Consulting with a healthcare professional can help confirm a diagnosis and initiate appropriate treatment. Prompt medical attention can contribute to effective symptom management and potentially slow down the progression of the disease. If you have any concerns or uncertainties, it is always best to consult with a healthcare professional for guidance and advice.7
Connective tissue diseases encompass a wide range of disorders that can have a significant impact on the body. With over 200 types of these diseases, including scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, it is important to recognize the symptoms and seek early diagnosis.2-4
Although there is no cure for many connective tissue diseases, proper management of symptoms through various treatment methods, such as medications, physiotherapy, and lifestyle adjustments, can greatly improve the quality of life for individuals affected by these conditions. With the aid of medical professionals and ongoing research, better understanding and treatment options continue to evolve, offering hope for those living with connective tissue diseases.5-7
- Sapkota B, Al Khalili Y. Mixed Connective Tissue Disease. StatPearls, Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542198/
- Careta MF, Romiti R. Localized scleroderma: clinical spectrum and therapeutic update. An Bras Dermatol 2015;90:62–73. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1590/abd1806-4841.20152890.
- Li SC. Scleroderma in Children and Adolescents: Localized Scleroderma and Systemic Sclerosis. Pediatr Clin North Am 2018;65:757–81. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2018.04.002.
- Radu A-F, Bungau SG. Management of Rheumatoid Arthritis: An Overview. Cells 2021;10:2857. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3390/cells10112857.
- Navallas M, Inarejos Clemente EJ, Iglesias E, Rebollo-Polo M, Antón J, Navarro OM. Connective Tissue Disorders in Childhood: Are They All the Same? RadioGraphics 2019;39:229–50. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1148/rg.2019180078.
- Vij R, Strek ME. Diagnosis and Treatment of Connective Tissue Disease-Associated Interstitial Lung Disease. Chest 2013;143:814–24. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1378/chest.12-0741.
- Ozaki Y, Nomura S. Treatment of Connective Tissue Disease-Related Intractable Disease with Biological Therapeutics. Open Access Rheumatol 2021;13:293–303. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2147/OARRR.S328211.
- Felten R, Lipsker D, Sibilia J, Chasset F, Arnaud L. The history of lupus throughout the ages. J Am Acad Dermatol 2022;87:1361–9. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2020.04.150
- Mathai SC, Danoff SK. Management of interstitial lung disease associated with connective tissue disease. BMJ 2016;352:h6819. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6819.
- Wiśniewski M, Zabłocka-Żytka L. Sexual and mental health of woman suffering from selected connective tissue diseases: an original paper. Clin Rheumatol 2021;40:3319–27. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10067-021-05611-z.