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CREST Syndrome Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Jeanie C Yoon, MD; Chief Editor: Dirk M Elston, MD  more...
Updated: Oct 15, 2015


In the typical course of limited scleroderma, the patient first notices Raynaud phenomenon. Over time (usually years), fingers become puffy, then the skin thickens slowly. Internal organ manifestations are delayed for many years.


Calcinosis is the pathologic calcification of soft tissues. The calcific deposits can be subclinical. When symptomatic, they can be tender and painful. They can ulcerate, drain a white chalky substance, and become secondarily infected. Inflammatory reactions intermittently occur at the site of calcinosis. Paraspinal calcifications rarely occur, causing local pain, radiculopathy, and diffuse weakness.

Raynaud phenomenon

Maurice Raynaud defined Raynaud phenomenon in 1862. He observed episodes of pallor, cyanosis, and/or rubor on the hands bilaterally in response to cold or emotional stress, in the setting of normal proximal arterial pulsations, and without gangrene.

Patients occasionally describe color changes proximally as far as the wrist. Less frequently, the feet are involved. Rarely, the nose and ears can be affected. Involved skin is cool during the attack, but the proximal skin is warm. Color changes are often accompanied by symptoms that can include pain and paresthesias. The phenomenon lasts minutes to hours, and the patient is symptom-free between episodes.

Esophageal dysmotility

While the entire intestine can be involved in scleroderma, esophageal involvement is most common and most often clinically relevant.

According to Akesson and Wollheim from 1989,[33] dysmotility is common. Cine-esophagram and radionuclide transit time studies demonstrate hypomotility in as many as 75-86% of patients with CREST syndrome. All patients have normal motility of the proximal esophagus, which primarily is striated muscle.

In 1987, Zamost et al[34] correlated esophageal symptoms with anatomic and physiologic measurements in 53 patients with scleroderma. The prevalence of esophagitis and strictures (41%) in this patient population is higher than in otherwise healthy patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease. Abnormal motility was a significant predictor of erosive esophagitis; 70% of patients with dysmotility had gross or microscopic evidence of erosive esophagitis. No patients with normal motility had erosive esophagitis. Symptoms of heartburn and dysphagia were more common in patients with erosive esophagitis. Heartburn alone did not predict esophagitis; half the patients without this complication still experienced heartburn. Additionally, dysphagia did not predict the presence of stricture.

Barrett esophagitis, a complication of gastroesophageal reflux, has been found in scleroderma patients, perhaps at a higher rate (37% in patients with scleroderma vs 4-13% in patients without scleroderma). Esophageal adenocarcinoma, a malignant transformation of Barrett esophagitis, has also been documented in scleroderma patients.

Another potential complication of esophageal dysmotility and gastroesophageal reflux is occult aspiration and pulmonary disease. In 1989, Johnson et al[35] examined 13 patients with systemic sclerosis using endoscopy, laryngoscopy, esophageal manometry, 24-hour esophageal pH monitoring, pulmonary function testing, and aspiration scanning. All 13 patients had endoscopic evidence of reflux. Twelve patients had abnormal laryngeal examination findings suggestive of aspiration; however, in this group, 1 patient had no evidence of proximal reflux by pH monitoring and 2 patients had normal aspiration scan results. Nonetheless, an inverse relationship was found between diffusing capacity of lung for carbon dioxide and esophageal reflux scores, indicating that gastroesophageal reflux potentially contributes to diminished pulmonary function.


Sclerodactyly means thickening of the skin of the digits of the hands and feet. Three phases of skin changes are seen in scleroderma: the edematous phase, indurative phase, and atrophic phase.

Patients with early scleroderma present with puffy edema in the fingers and may report morning stiffness or arthralgias. The edematous phase is usually short (ie, months, but occasionally years).

In the indurative phase, the skin becomes thickened. Patients may report pruritus. The skin appears shiny and tight. Skin creases are lost. Erythema may be present. In limited scleroderma, this process continues slowly for many years.

Late in the course of scleroderma, the skin becomes fragile and lax as it enters the atrophic phase.

Patients with limited scleroderma find that the advancement of skin disease occurs slowly, over many years. By definition, skin involvement remains distal to the elbows and knees, although it can involve the face and neck.


Telangiectases are lesions formed by collections of dilated blood vessels.

In scleroderma patients, telangiectases occur on the face, upper trunk, and hands.

They also occur on mucosal surfaces (eg, lips) and throughout the GI tract and may be symptomatic. These were the most common cause of bleeding in a series of 144 patients with scleroderma (diffuse and limited disease). Telangiectases were associated with recurrent GI bleeding in 7 patients in this group. This bleeding can be chronic and cause anemia.[36]

Other manifestations

Arthralgias are common (90% of patients), but erosive arthritis is rare. Proximal muscle weakness can occur.

Pulmonary hypertension most often occurs in the absence of interstitial fibrosis in approximately 3-14% of CREST syndrome patients. It is a very late event and the prognosis is poor, with a mortality rate of 50% after 2 years.[37] Symptoms heralding this phenomenon include dyspnea on exertion and cough.

Myocardial involvement is rare in patients with limited scleroderma; however, patchy fibrosis in the myocardium can occur and typically is asymptomatic. Significant myocardial involvement manifests as dyspnea on exertion, fatigue, and palpitations. Arrhythmias and conduction abnormalities can occur.[38]

Primary biliary cirrhosis may be associated with CREST syndrome.[39, 40]

Renal crises rarely occur in persons with limited scleroderma (1%); they manifest accelerated hypertension, renal failure, and microangiopathic hemolytic anemia.

Entrapment neurologic syndromes (eg, carpal tunnel syndrome) occur. Autonomic dysfunction of the GI tract also occurs.

Sicca symptoms are present in approximately 35% of patients. Of patients with sicca symptoms, half have anti-Ro (SSA) or anti-La (SSB) antibodies.

Scleroderma is associated with an increased risk of cancer, in particular lung cancer.[41]




In scleroderma, calcific deposits are found predominantly in the extremities, around joints, and around bony prominences. Osteonecrosis has also been reported.[42]

Deposits typically are found in the flexor surfaces of the hands and the extensor surfaces of the forearms and knees.

The deposits rest in the dermis but can be found in deeper periarticular tissues.

Calcinosis on dorsal forearm. Calcinosis on dorsal forearm.
Close-up view of calcinosis. Close-up view of calcinosis.

Raynaud phenomenon

Triphasic color changes of pallor, cyanosis, and erythema represent phases of vasoconstriction, slow blood flow, and reperfusion, respectively.

Color changes extend proximally from the tips of digits to various levels, with a well-demarcated border.

Raynaud phenomenon showing pallor of most of the f Raynaud phenomenon showing pallor of most of the finger tips with a violaceous discoloration (hyperemia) of the thumb tip.

Esophageal dysmotility

The earliest change in the distal esophagus (primarily smooth muscle) is an uncoordinated disorganized pattern of contractions resulting in low amplitude or absent peristalsis.

Lower esophageal sphincter (LES) pressure typically is lower than in healthy controls, and incomplete relaxation of the LES occurs.[43]


The process typically begins in the distal fingers and advances proximally.

The process also may occur on the face, over the forehead, and around the mouth. Facial involvement can lead to a mauskopf (mouse head) appearance. Lips become thinner, and radial furrowing develops around the mouth. The oral aperture is reduced in size (microstomia). Wrinkles over the forehead diminish.

Sclerodactyly (also with Raynaud phenomenon). Sclerodactyly (also with Raynaud phenomenon).
Sclerodactyly. Sclerodactyly.


These are flat and nonpulsatile and typically have a rectangular or elongated shape. The vessels are so close together that they appear as discrete mats.

Telangiectasia of the face. Telangiectasia of the face.
Telangiectasia of the lip. Telangiectasia of the lip.
Telangiectasia of the finger. Telangiectasia of the finger.
Close-up view of telangiectasia. Close-up view of telangiectasia.


The cause of limited scleroderma is yet to be determined. Studies of genetic factors show only rare occasions of multicase families. HLA associations are present but are not strong. These include HLA-DRB*01, HLADRB*11, HLA-A*30, and HLA-A*32 showing increased susceptibility to scleroderma and HLA-DRB*07, HLA-B*57, and HLA-Cw*14 being protective.[44]

The predominance of cases occurring in women after their childbearing years and the similar clinical presentation of scleroderma to graft versus host disease has suggested the importance of fetal/maternal microchimerism in the etiology of scleroderma.

Environmental factors also are likely important. Some similarities in clinical presentation occur with L-tryptophan and rapeseed oil exposure. Certain occupations have been linked to an increased risk to systemic sclerosis, including female teachers, female textile workers, and construction workers. Exposure to silica, synthetic adhesives, solvents (including chlorinated solvents, aromatic solvents, white spirit, toluene, trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and cleaning products) have been implicated in a higher risk of developing systemic sclerosis. Interestingly, the use of vibrating tools was also found to increase the risk of systemic sclerosis.[45, 46]

The pathogenesis of calcinosis, Raynaud phenomenon, esophageal dysmotility, and sclerodactyly are described in more detail.


Ultrastructural study of calcifications from patients with CREST syndrome demonstrates calcium apatite crystals. Serum calcium, phosphorus, and alkaline phosphatase levels typically are normal; therefore, the calcifications are considered dystrophic.

Elevated levels of gamma-carboxyglutamic acid (Gla), a calcium-binding amino acid found in vitamin K–dependent clotting factors, are present in the urine and the involved tissues of patients with calcinosis. Gla and other calcium-binding proteins may be deposited abnormally in soft tissues during clotting. The occurrence of calcinosis at sites of repeated trauma appears to support this idea.

Raynaud phenomenon

Microvascular abnormalities and dysfunction are central to the pathogenesis of scleroderma-associated Raynaud phenomenon.

Endothelial injury is believed to result in intimal hyperplasia and fibrosis, concentric narrowing of digital arteries by as much as 75-80%, and occlusion by intravascular thrombi.

Resting blood flow in fingers was lower in scleroderma patients compared with normal controls as measured by laser Doppler flowmeter. Arteries from scleroderma patients have significantly increased sensitivity to alpha2-adenoreceptor–mediated vasoconstriction. Whether this is a consequence or cause of endothelial cell injury and dysfunction is unclear.

Endothelin, a naturally occurring peptide, has been implicated as a pathologic mediator of vasoconstriction, fibrosis, vascular hypertrophy, and inflammation in patients with Raynaud syndrome.[47]

Esophageal dysmotility

The earliest abnormality in the involved gut of scleroderma patients is dysmotility secondary to nerve injury, perhaps resulting from arteriolar changes in the vasa nervorum or compressive nerve damage via collagen deposits. Smooth muscle atrophy occurs later (and often marks the beginning of symptoms).

The predilection for smooth muscle rather than striated muscle atrophy explains the distribution of anatomic involvement. The proximal esophagus primarily is striated muscle and remains essentially uninvolved. The esophagus typically is weakly responsive to prokinetic therapy, until, according to Sjogren,[43] the final stage of the disease (fibrotic infiltration of muscle) halts the response to medications.

The consequences of esophageal dysmotility are reflux and its complications. The reduced LES pressure in patients with scleroderma likely allows acid reflux, which is exacerbated by delayed clearance of acid from the esophagus because of abnormal distal motility. This creates an environment in which stricture, Barrett esophagus, adenocarcinoma,[48] or aspiration may supervene.

The relationship of Raynaud phenomenon to esophageal dysmotility is interesting. Cold-induced vasospasm of the hands also results in esophageal dysmotility, and reversal of this vasospasm with reserpine reverses both peripheral Raynaud phenomenon and abnormalities in esophageal motility (as reported by Sjogren[43] in 1994); however, patients with primary Raynaud phenomenon do not tend to have esophageal dysmotility. Therefore, the significance of these observations remains to be determined.[49]


The development of sclerodactyly begins with a perivascular inflammatory infiltrate in the dermis. The trigger for this inflammatory process is not known.

The edematous phase of skin involvement results from mucopolysaccharide, glycoprotein, and collagen (types I and III) deposition in the dermis.

As collagen deposition continues, the dermis becomes more sclerotic than edematous. Meanwhile, a similar process occurs in small arteries. Mucinous deposition occurs in the intima. The adventitia is infiltrated first with inflammatory cells, and then it becomes fibrotic. This process results in narrowing of the artery and then arterial collapse or thrombosis. The tissue then becomes ischemic.

Years after the onset of skin changes, fibrosis usually subsides, leaving atrophic skin.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Jeanie C Yoon, MD Clinical Instructor, Department of General Internal Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine

Jeanie C Yoon, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, Society of Hospital Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Gregory J Raugi, MD, PhD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Dermatology, University of Washington at Seattle School of Medicine; Chief, Dermatology Section, Primary and Specialty Care Service, Veterans Administration Medical Center of Seattle

Gregory J Raugi, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Richard P Vinson, MD Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Dermatology, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Paul L Foster School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Mountain View Dermatology, PA

Richard P Vinson, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Texas Medical Association, Association of Military Dermatologists, Texas Dermatological Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Jeffrey P Callen, MD Professor of Medicine (Dermatology), Chief, Division of Dermatology, University of Louisville School of Medicine

Jeffrey P Callen, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Physicians, American College of Rheumatology

Disclosure: Received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from: XOMA; Biogen/IDEC; Novartis; Janssen Biotech, Abbvie, CSL pharma<br/>Received honoraria from UpToDate for author/editor; Received honoraria from JAMA Dermatology for associate editor and intermittent author; Received royalty from Elsevier for book author/editor; Received dividends from trust accounts, but I do not control these accounts, and have directed our managers to divest pharmaceutical stocks as is fiscally prudent from Stock holdings in various trust accounts include some pharmaceutical companies and device makers for i inherited these trust accounts; for: Celgene; Pfizer; 3M; Johnson and Johnson; Merck; Abbott Laboratories; AbbVie; Procter and Gamble; Amgen.

Chief Editor

Dirk M Elston, MD Professor and Chairman, Department of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine

Dirk M Elston, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The authors and editors of Medscape Reference wish to thank Dr. Bruce Gilliland for assistance in reviewing the manuscript and Dr. Jan V. Hirschmann and Dr. Netayna Sandler for their images.

The authors and editors of Medscape Reference also gratefully acknowledge the contributions of previous authors, Mary A. Wemple, MD, and Kyle L. Horner, MD, MS, to the development and writing of this article.

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Calcinosis on dorsal forearm.
Close-up view of calcinosis.
Raynaud phenomenon showing pallor of most of the finger tips with a violaceous discoloration (hyperemia) of the thumb tip.
Sclerodactyly (also with Raynaud phenomenon).
Telangiectasia of the face.
Telangiectasia of the lip.
Telangiectasia of the finger.
Close-up view of telangiectasia.
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