Connective tissue diseases

What are connective tissue diseases?

The connective tissues are made of collagen and elastin. Connective tissue disease refers to a group of disorders that affect the collagen and elastin of these connective tissues, causing them to become inflamed. There are many diseases that affect the connective tissues, and their causes and symptoms vary depending on the type. Connective tissue disorders can be categorised into inherited disorders and autoimmune diseases. Auto-immune diseases that affect the connective tissue include Rheumatoid Arthritis, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, Sjogren's syndrome, Systemic sclerosis, Polymyositis and Dermatomyositis. These conditions are caused by a faulty immune-system mistaking the tissues for a threat, producing antibodies that target the body's own tissues for attack.

Rheumatoid Arthritis – this is the most common condition, which can be inherited. It causes the immune system to attack the lining of the joints, causing pain, stiffness and inflammation of the joints.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus - this autoimmune disease is characterized by inflammation of the joints, skin, and internal organs. It can affect every organ of the body, from the brain, skin, blood, to the lungs. It is known to cause complications with the nervous system, kidneys and blood cells.

Sjogren's syndrome – this chronic disease causes the immune system to attack moisture-producing glands. The glands of the eyes and mouth are affected with uncomfortable and debilitating symptoms of dryness. This condition also causes problems with the kidneys, lungs, nerves, digestive system and blood vessels.

Systemic sclerosis – otherwise known as Scleroderma, is an autoimmune disease that causes scar tissue to develop in the skin, internal organs and small blood vessels.

Polymyositis & Dermatomyositis – this condition causes the immune system to attack the muscle tissue. It is called Dermatomyositis when it causes inflammation of the skin as well.

The most serious impact of connective tissue disease is on the pulmonary system. These conditions commonly cause pulmonary complications due to inflammation of the lung lining, causing difficulty breathing, coughing and asthma-like symptoms.

How can they be treated or managed?

While there is no cure for any of the connective tissue diseases, management of the condition is possible to ease symptoms and related complications. Each of the connective tissue diseases varies in their cause, symptoms, and complications and thus require individualised treatment. Medical treatment of these conditions includes systemic drugs including analgesia, anti-inflammatory drugs and drugs addressing the auto-immune mechanism of the disease, including a range of biologic agents. Local treatment can also be offered in the form of injections into the joint space with a local anaesthetic and corticosteroid to manage pain and inflammation. In addition to treating the specific condition, Dr Griesel may also address the many pulmonary complications of connective tissue disease.