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Scleroderma, technically called systemic sclerosis or SSc, is a disease of unknown cause that affects the connective tissues of the skin and various organs. Common symptoms include thickening and tightening of the skin (beginning with the extremities), Raynaud’s phenomenon (a condition characterized by an exaggerated reaction in the fingertips to cold exposure), joint pain (especially in the fingers and knees), esophageal reflux (heartburn), calcium deposits under the skin, and telangiectasias (mats of enlarged small blood vessels). Scleroderma can lead to serious complications, such as fibrosis of the lungs, heart, and kidneys; for this reason, medical supervision is essential. There is no cure as yet for scleroderma, although drugs may be used to alleviate the various individual symptoms of the disease.
The supplement PABA has been suggested as a treatment for scleroderma.1,2 A 4-month, double-blind study of 146 people with longstanding, stable scleroderma failed to find any evidence of benefit. However, half of the participants in this trial dropped out before the end, making the results unreliable.3
The herb gotu kola has a long history of use for various skin conditions; for this reason, it has been tried as a treatment for scleroderma.4 However, as yet there is no meaningful evidence that it is effective. Other herbs and supplements proposed for treatment of scleroderma (but that do not have any significant supporting evidence) include boswellia, thymus extract, MSM, antioxidants (e.g. the antioxidant vitamins vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene, and the mineral selenium, which supports the body’s own antioxidant defense system), and danshen root. (One study failed to find vitamin C helpful for the treatment of Raynaud’s phenomenon associated with scleroderma.5
Finally, several herbs and supplements have shown promise for treating the individual symptoms of scleroderma. For more information, see the articles on Raynaud’s phenomenon, rheumatoid arthritis, and esophageal reflux.
Combination therapy with the supplement 5-HTP and the drug carbidopa has reportedly caused skin changes similar to those that occur in scleroderma.7–9 Furthermore, L-tryptophan, a supplement closely related to 5-HTP, has been taken off the market because it caused numerous cases of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, which is sometimes regarded as a close relative of scleroderma. It is thought that this outbreak was due to a contaminant in a certain batch of the supplement, but some controversy about this explanation remains.
Finally, various herbs and supplements may interact adversely with drugs used to prevent or treat scleroderma. For more information on this potential risk, see the appropriate individual drug articles in the Drug Interactions section of this database.
1. Zarafonetis CJ, Dabich L, Skovronski JJ, et al. Retrospective studies in scleroderma: skin response to potassium para-aminobenzoate therapy. Clin Exp Rheumatol. 1988;6:261–268.
2. Zarafonetis CJ, Dabich L, Negri D, et al. Retrospective studies in scleroderma: effect of potassium para-aminobenzoate on survival. J Clin Epidemiol. 1988;41:193–205.
3. Clegg DO, Reading JC, Mayes MD. Comparison of aminobenzoate potassium and placebo in the treatment of scleroderma. J Rheumatol. 1994;21:105–110.
4. Kartnig T. Clinical applications of Centella asiatica (L.) Urb. Herbs Spices Med Plants. 1988;3:145–173.
5. Mavrikakis ME, Lekakis JP, Papamichael CM, et al. Ascorbic acid does not improve endothelium-dependent flow-mediated dilatation of the brachial artery in patients with Raynaud's phenomenon secondary to systemic sclerosis. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2003;73:3–7.
6. Maeda M, Kachi H, Ichihashi N, et al. The effect of electrical acupuncture-stimulation therapy using thermography and plasma endothelin (ET-1) levels in patients with progressive system sclerosis (PSS). J Dermatol Sci. 1998;17:151–155.
7. Sternberg EM, Van Woert MH, Young SN, et al. Development of a scleroderma-like illness during therapy with L-5-hydroxytryptophan and carbidopa. N Engl J Med. 1980;303:782–787.
8. Joly P, Lampert A, Thomine E, et al. Develoment of pseudobullous morphea and scleroderma-like illness during therapy with L-5-hydroxytryptophan and carbidopa. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1991;25:332–333.
9. Auffranc JC, Berbis P, Fabre JF, et al. Sclerodermiform and poikilodermal syndrome observed during treatment with carbidopa and 5-hydroxytryptophan [translated from French]. Ann Dermatol Venereol. 1985;112:691–692.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015