Every case of scleroderma is different. But after nearly 30 years with this disease, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to manage. So here are some basic suggestions that I hope will make life easier for you or someone you love with scleroderma:
Get the Best Medical Care You Can Find
This probably goes without saying, but it’s the single most important step you need to take to deal with this incredibly complex disease. If at all possible, find a medical center that specializes in scleroderma, even if you have to travel for occasional visits. Both the Scleroderma Foundation and Scleroderma Research Foundation can help you locate the nearest scleroderma specialists.
I’m blessed to live within an hour’s drive of Boston Medical Center, where not only the Rheumatology Department has extensive expertise in the disease, but also many other specialists do, as well. It really helps to have a cardiologist or dermatologist or nephrologist who also knows scleroderma, and you don’t find that unless you’re seeing physicians at a center where there’s a critical mass of scleroderma patients.
Get Enough Sleep
We’re all too busy. We all try to pack too much into each day. Especially if you’re juggling work and family and volunteering and aging parents and all the rest, it’s hard to get the sleep you need, even when you’re healthy. With scleroderma, you need to get sleep. Without it, you’ll get sicker. End of discussion.
Dress in Layers, Favoring Natural Fibers
When you need to keep warm, layers are the best way to go, especially if you’re moving in and out of spaces that vary in temperature. Cotton, wool and silk are my favored fabrics for warmth. Years ago, when I was first struggling with Raynaud’s, my rheumatologist told me that synthetics like polyester trap moisture and can make you chillier, whereas natural fibers wick away moisture and allow your skin to breathe. He was right. This is also the reason I wear shoes made of leather or natural fibers. Anything plastic or rubber causes a lot of perspiration and can lead to skin breakdown.
A lot of heat is lost through your head. That’s why, back in the day, people wore nightcaps (not the alcoholic variety) to stay warm in unheated bedrooms. Especially here in the Northeast, hats are a must in winter. I like wearing scarves made of natural fibers, for reasons cited above and because they make a nice fashion statement while keeping me comfortable.
Protect Your Hands
Okay, this is obvious. Here’s what I do:
- Use disposable latex gloves for all cooking to keep bacteria out of my fingertip ulcers.
- Wash my hands frequently with anti-bacterial gel. I have to do this to avoid getting my bandages wet. I checked this with my Infectious Disease doc and he said it was fine, contrary to all the hoo-hah about too much anti-bacterial soap causing germs to flourish. When I wash my bare ulcers, I use Aveeno Ultra-Calming Foaming Cleanser. It never, ever stings and is easy to wash off.
- Use soft, flexible fabric bandages for finger ulcers. These can be hard to find, as many generic fabric bandages now include antibiotic ointment in the pads, which I don’t like. I favor Coverlet Adhesive Dressing Strips, with one caveat—the adhesive is very sticky, and you have to really soak the bandages before removing so as not to tear your skin. These are available online, not in stores. Aquafor Ointment is an excellent dressing. I also use small squares of Sorbsan, a surgical dressing made of seaweed, as a moisture barrier. And I change my ulcer dressings twice a day. Yes, it’s expensive. But not as expensive as getting an infection.
- Wear wrist warmers. I like Wristies® fleece warmers, but there are now many alternatives on the market. I use these throughout the year, to keep warm in the winter and protect against air conditioning in the summer, and as an alternative to gloves during transitional seasons. They’re very affordable, come in many colors and several lengths, and there are even Wristies with a little pocket for a hand heat pack.
- Wear natural fiber gloves and use mittens for best warmth. I have a very well-worn pair of leather gloves that are soft and provide ample room for my many bandages, as well as a good pair of down mittens for winter.
Get Regular Exercise
I let this go for a long time. Big mistake. You lose range of motion if you don’t move. One of my rheumatologists gave me the excellent advice to find some form of exercise I really love, because I’ll be able to stick with it. So I’ve been doing Pilates for several years, now, and also a variety of forms of dance—all beginner classes, and I’m a klutz, but it doesn’t matter, because I always feel so much better afterwards, and I’m even regaining a little grace, despite stiff joints. Yes, it’s hard to exercise when you’re in the active stages of scleroderma and so tired all the time. But even walking a short distance in fresh air is better than sitting still in your home, and it’s also good for your soul.
Surround Yourself with People Who Support You
Many people don’t understand what you’re going through and will offer a lot of well-meaning but useless advice. Others will treat you like an invalid. Avoid them. Find those who will give you hugs when you need it, listen to your angst without criticism or commentary, remind you of your strengths when you’re at a loss, and most of all, who will accept you for who you are, no matter what. This is essential.
There’s much more I could say here, but I’ll save it for future posts. I’d love to hear what’s worked for you, too.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.