Collagen vascular disease refers to a group of diseases that affect your connective tissue. Collagen is a protein-based connective tissue that forms a support system for your skin.
The connective tissue holds bones, ligaments, and muscles together. Collagen vascular disease is sometimes also called connective tissue disease.
Some disorders classified as collagen vascular diseases affect your joints, skin, blood vessels, or other vital organs. Symptoms vary according to the specific disease.
Collagen vascular diseases have been recognized for a long time. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory * disease that causes stiffness in the joints (places where bones meet), and can lead to disfigurement. It is an ancient disease; bone changes showing this condition have been identified in skeletons thousands of years old.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (er-i-thee-ma-TO-sis), which affects multiple organs and tissues throughout the body, was first described in 1828.
What are Collagen Vascular Diseases?
Collagen vascular diseases, sometimes called connective tissue diseases (CTDs) or autoimmune diseases, cover a wide array of disorders in which the body’s natural immune or self-protection system fails to recognize its own tissues and goes on attack against itself.
Some of these diseases limit their damage to a single organ, and others spread problems throughout the body.
Examples of collagen vascular disease include:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- temporal arteritis
Causes of Collagen Vascular Disease
Collagen vascular disease is an autoimmune disease. This means that your immune system mistakenly attacks your body’s healthy tissue. The attacks are usually in the form of inflammation. In this case, your immune system causes inflammation in the collagen and nearby joints.
Researchers are studying the causes of autoimmune diseases. Some autoimmune diseases have strong genetic components and may be passed down from parents to children. Environmental factors may act to trigger these diseases in some way.
Fatigue, stress, and higher levels of certain antibodies also may lead to these diseases. Even ultraviolet rays of sunlight have been suggested as possible contributing causes. Collagen vascular diseases are not contagious; people cannot catch these diseases from one another.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the cause of the attacks is not known (NIH, 2011).
Several collagen vascular diseases, including lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis, are more common in women than men. This group of diseases usually affects adults in their 30s and 40s. According to the Mayo Clinic, children as young as 15 can be diagnosed with lupus (Mayo Clinic, 2011).
Symptoms of Collagen Vascular Disease
Symptoms differ depending on the illness, but they often include joint pain, fever, rash, recurrent infections, fatigue, mouth ulcers, dry mouth and dry eyes, hair loss, difficulty swallowing, swollen glands, or fingers and toes that get overly cold when exposed to cooler temperatures.
In addition to systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis, collagen vascular diseases include:
- Scleroderma: This progressive and systemic sclerosis (skle-RO-sis) causes skin to thicken and tough fibrous tissue to form in the internal organs of the digestive tract, kidneys, heart, and lungs.
- Sjogren’s syndrome: This causes dry mouth, dry eyes, and other symptoms.
- Polymyositis and dermatomyositis: These are inflammatory muscle disorders that may also affect the skin, the heart, and the lungs.
- Mixed connective tissue diseases: These combine features of lupus, scleroderma, and polymyositis.
- Polyarteritis nodosa: This disorder can damage small and medium-sized arteries of almost any organ, including the kidneys, heart, and intestines.
Each type of collagen vascular disease has its own set of symptoms. However, most forms of collagen vascular disease do share some of the same general symptoms (NIH, 2011). People with collagen vascular disorders typically experience:
- muscle weakness
- body aches
- joint pain
- skin rash
Symptoms of Lupus
Lupus is a collagen vascular disease that causes unique symptoms in each patient. Additional symptoms can include shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, and dry eyes. People with lupus may have long periods of remission without symptoms. Symptoms can flare up during times of stress or after prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.3 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS, 2009). Inflammation of the connective tissue between the joints causes pain and stiffness.
Some patients have chronic problems with dry eyes and a dry mouth. Some people with this form of collagen vascular disease also have an inflammation of the blood vessels or of the heart’s lining.
Symptoms of Scleroderma
Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that can affect the skin or other organs, including the heart, lungs, or digestive tract. Symptoms include thickening and hardening of the skin, rashes, or open sores.
Your skin may feel tight as if it is being stretched, or feel lumpy in areas. Systemic scleroderma can cause coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulties. Diarrhea, acid reflux, joint pain, or numbness in the feet are also possible symptoms.
Symptoms of Temporal Arteritis
Temporal arteritis is another form of collagen vascular disease. People with temporal arteritis have an inflammation of the large artery in the head. Symptoms are most common in adults over the age of 70, according to the Southern California College of Optometry (SCCO). Symptoms can include scalp sensitivity, jaw pain, headaches, and vision loss.
A complete medical history and a physical examination are the basis for the diagnosis of autoimmune disease. A number of laboratory tests can be used to help diagnose collagen vascular diseases. Blood tests can check levels of autoantibodies.
Other tests include rheumatoid factor tests, urinalysis, blood counts, liver and kidney tests, and a sedimentation rate, which will give a nonspecific indicator of inflammation. A chest x-ray and other tests of specific lung function also may be done, since collagen vascular disorders occasionally produce breathing difficulties.
Treatment for Collagen Vascular Disease
Treatment for collagen vascular disease varies according to your individual condition. However, corticosteroid and immunosuppressant medications commonly treat many connective tissue diseases.
Corticosteroids reduce inflammation throughout the body. This class of drugs also helps normalize your immune system. Corticosteroids can carry major side effects in some people, including weight gain and mood changes. Some people may see a rise in blood sugar while taking corticosteroid medications.
Immunosuppressant medication works by lowering your immune response. When your immune response is lower, your body will no longer attack itself as much.
However, having a lowered immunity can increase your risk of becoming sick at times. Protect yourself from simple viruses by staying away from family and friends with colds or flu.
Physical therapy or gentle exercise can also treat collagen vascular disease. Range of motion exercises help you retain your mobility and may reduce joint and muscle pain.
The outlook for collagen vascular disease varies in each person, and really depends on the specific disease. However, they do have one thing in common: all autoimmune diseases are chronic conditions.
They have no cure, and you must manage them throughout your life. Luckily, there are effective treatments to help keep even severe symptoms at bay.