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Connective Tissue Disorders


What is a connective tissue disorder?

A connective tissue disorder can affect any connective tissue in your body. Connective tissues support your organs, attach muscles to bones, and create scar tissue after an injury. Cartilage is an example of a connective tissue. There are many types of connective tissue disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and scleroderma. The most common affected areas are joints, muscles, and skin. Your organs, eyes, nervous system, and blood vessels can also be affected.

What increases my risk for a connective tissue disorder?

You might have been born with the disorder, or it may develop from any of the following:

  • Healthy cells in your body are attacked by your immune system by mistake
  • An injury that causes scar tissue to form
  • A family history of a connective tissue disorder
  • A lack of vitamin C, causing a connective tissue disorder called scurvy

What are the signs and symptoms of a connective tissue disorder?

Signs and symptoms depend on the type of connective tissue disorder and if it is severe. Symptoms may be mild or severe, and may come and go:

  • Fever or fatigue
  • Skin rash or thickening, blisters, or sensitivity to sunlight
  • Rash on your cheeks that goes across your nose
  • Joint pain, swelling, or warmth
  • Deformed joints, or limited range of motion
  • Cold, numb, or swollen fingers
  • Loss of appetite, or weight loss without trying
  • Dry mouth or eyes, vision problems, or an eye infection such as conjunctivitis
  • Hair loss

How is a connective tissue disorder diagnosed?

You may have symptoms of several types of connective tissue disorders. This can make diagnosis difficult. Over time, you may develop one type of connective tissue disorder.

  • Blood tests may be used to measure the amount of inflammation in your body or to check organ function. Blood tests may also be used to check for specific antibodies that are attacking healthy cells by mistake.
  • An x-ray, CT, or MRI may be used to check your joints or organs for damage. Do not enter the MRI room with any metal. Metal can cause serious damage. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • A biopsy is a procedure used to take a sample of tissue to be tested.

How is a connective tissue disorder treated?

  • Medicines may be given to prevent your immune system from attacking healthy cells. You may also need medicines to stop the disease from getting worse. You may need to use topical creams or lotions to control a rash or other symptoms that affect your skin.
  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely. Some prescription pain medicines contain acetaminophen. Do not take other medicines that contain acetaminophen without talking to your healthcare provider. Too much acetaminophen may cause liver damage. Prescription pain medicine may cause constipation. Ask your healthcare provider how to prevent or treat constipation.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Acetaminophen helps reduce pain and fever. Acetaminophen is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver problems if not taken correctly.
  • Steroids may be given to reduce swelling and pain.

What can I do to manage my connective tissue disorder?

  • Rest as needed. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are having trouble sleeping because of pain or other symptoms. Rest your joints if they are stiff or painful. Your healthcare provider may suggest support devices such as crutches or splints to help your joints rest.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy products. Work with your healthcare provider or dietitian to create healthy meal plans.
  • Go to physical or occupational therapy as directed. A physical therapist can help you create an exercise plan. Exercise may help increase your energy. Exercise can also help keep stiff joints flexible and increase range of motion. An occupational therapist can help you learn to do your daily activities when you have pain or swelling.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about pregnancy. If you are a woman and want to get pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider. You or your baby might be at risk for complications. You may need to wait until your disease is controlled or your medications are finished before you get pregnant. You may also have trouble getting pregnant because of your disease. Your healthcare provider may be able to suggest ways to improve your ability to become pregnant.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause blood vessel and lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Manage stress. Stress may slow healing and lead to illness. Learn ways to control stress, such as relaxation, deep breathing, or listening to music.

What can I do to manage flares?

A flare means something triggered your symptoms. Stress, cold weather, and sunlight are examples of triggers. Your healthcare provider can help you create a management plan that includes what to do if you have a flare. Treat flares quickly to help prevent serious illness.

  • Apply ice or heat as directed. Ice helps reduce pain and swelling, and may help prevent tissue damage. Use a cold compress, or put crushed ice in a bag. Cover it with a towel and apply to the painful area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, or as directed. Heat helps reduce pain and muscle spasms. Apply a warm compress to the area for 20 minutes every 2 hours, or as directed.
  • Elevate the area above the level of your heart. Elevation can help reduce swelling and pain, especially in your joints. Elevate the area as often as possible.
  • Keep your hands and feet warm. Certain connective tissue disorders can cause your hands and feet to become cold and painful. Over time, ulcers or gangrene (tissue death) may develop if frequent or severe attacks are not prevented. Dress warmly in cold weather, including gloves and thick socks. It may help to wiggle your fingers or toes to improve circulation.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You have trouble breathing, chest pain or pressure, or a fast heartbeat.
  • You are sweating, and your lips are pale or blue.
  • You are vomiting blood.
  • You have a high fever.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You lose feeling in your hands or feet.
  • You lose feeling on one side of your body.
  • You have sudden pain in your eyes and vision problems.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have trouble urinating, or you urinate less than usual.
  • You have trouble having a bowel movement, or you lose control of your bowel movements.
  • Your muscle or joint tightness worsens, or your fingers begin to curl.
  • Your symptoms get worse, even after treatment.
  • Your skin is itchy, swollen, or has a rash.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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