Assessing microvascular changes in systemic sclerosis diagnosis and management

Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2010 Oct;6(10):578-87. doi: 10.1038/nrrheum.2010.104. Epub 2010 Aug 10.


Microvascular damage and dysfunction represent the earliest morphological and functional markers of systemic sclerosis (SSc), a progressive connective tissue disease characterized by vascular abnormalities and diffuse fibrosis in the skin and internal organs. These early microvascular changes are clinically mirrored by Raynaud phenomenon, which can be primary (idiopathic) or secondary to several different conditions including SSc. Morphological and functional assessment of the cutaneous microvasculature have crucial implications for diagnosis, prognosis and therapy in SSc and secondary Raynaud phenomenon. Most importantly, imaging with nailfold videocapillaroscopy (NVC) enables the early differentiation between primary and secondary Raynaud phenomenon by identifying morphological patterns specific to various stages of SSc ('early', 'active' and 'late' patterns); the inclusion of these NVC patterns could increase the sensitivity of classification criteria for SSc. Findings on NVC are also markers of SSc severity and progression, as reduced capillary density has been associated with a high risk of developing digital skin ulcers and pulmonary arterial hypertension. Laser Doppler imaging and thermal imaging demonstrate the dysfunctional cutaneous blood flow in response to cold stimuli. Therapies targeting underlying vascular disease in SSc have been successfully designed to improve the symptoms of Raynaud phenomenon and to reduce ischemic injury to involved organs, and NVC patterns have been found to improve following targeted therapy; however, treatment of later fibrosis remains a challenge.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Laser-Doppler Flowmetry
  • Microscopic Angioscopy
  • Microvessels / pathology*
  • Nails / blood supply
  • Prognosis
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Raynaud Disease / diagnosis*
  • Raynaud Disease / drug therapy
  • Raynaud Disease / physiopathology
  • Scleroderma, Systemic / diagnosis*
  • Scleroderma, Systemic / drug therapy
  • Scleroderma, Systemic / physiopathology
  • Skin / blood supply
  • Skin / pathology*
  • Thermography / methods
  • Vasodilator Agents / therapeutic use


  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Vasodilator Agents