Connective tissue diseases: symptoms, types and treatment

Written by: Dr Antoni Chan
Published: | Updated: 17/04/2020
Edited by: Laura Burgess

Connective tissue diseases (CTD) are a group of conditions where there is an abnormality in the tissues that connect the different parts of the body. Connective tissues include bones, cartilage and fat. CTDs also affect the skin, muscle, joints and internal organs such as the lungs, kidneys, brain and blood vessels. 

Here, one of our expert rheumatologists Dr Antoni Chan explains everything that you need to know about CTDs, from the symptoms to the types and whether it can be a fatal condition.

What are connective tissue diseases?

Typically, we think of CTDs as caused by our own immune system attacking one’s own body, which is also known as autoimmune conditions. Autoimmune CTDs include systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma and poly/dermatomyositis. In this article, I will focus on autoimmune CTDs.

There are also inherited CTDs, where the abnormality is in the protein structure of the tissues. The inherited CTDs include Ehler-Danlos syndrome, Marfan syndrome and Osteogenesis Imperfecta. These conditions affect the skin, bones and muscles.

What are the symptoms of connective tissue disease?

CTDs can cause generalised symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Sensitivity to light 
  • Fever
  • Change in the colour of the hands (Raynaud’s)
  • Muscle and joint stiffness

There are also specific symptoms which are related to the area of the body affected, for example, breathlessness if the lung is involved, or a rash if the skin is affected. Joint swelling can happen if the joints are inflamed in CTDs.

What are the different types of connective tissue disease?

The autoimmune CTDs include systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), scleroderma and dermato/polymyositis. These are considered classic CTDs. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Sjogren’s syndrome are also often classed as CTDs.

In the early stages of the conditions, there may not be a full set of symptoms and at this stage, it is classed as undifferentiated CTDs. If there is an overlap of the symptoms from the classical CTDs, this is known as mixed CTDs.

Can connective tissue disease kill you?

The treatments for CTDs have improved significantly in the last decade and with careful monitoring and this should reduce the risk of death from it. If the disease affects certain organs and is not controlled there is still a possible risk of death as a complication of the condition.

Can connective tissue disease be cured?

CTDs are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Research into these areas will allow us to understand the causes of the condition which can lead to better treatments.

At present, there is no cure as the exact cause of the condition is still unknown. The treatments, however, have improved and the aim is to make the disease go into remission (go to sleep) so that it does not cause long-term complications.

How is connective tissue disease treated?

CTDs are treated using a variety of medications. Each treatment is chosen based on the individual characteristics and features of the person. Pain relief can be obtained by using paracetamol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). 

Corticosteroids such as prednisolone are used to bring the disease into control. Immune-modulating drugs such as Hydroxychloroquine, Azathioprine and Mycophenolate are also used.

Biologic (antibody) treatment such as Rituximab and Belimumab can be used when the other treatments are not adequate in controlling the condition.


Dr Antoni Chan treats rheumatological conditions, including joint pain, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriatic arthritis, osteoporosis and gout. He is available for a video call using our e-Consultation service. You can make an appointment with Dr Chan via his Top Doctor’s profile here.

By Dr Antoni Chan

Dr Antoni Chan is a consultant rheumatologist and physician based in Reading. He currently sees patients at Spire Dunedin Hospital. He treats rheumatological conditions including joint pain, swelling and stiffness. Dr Chan is also the associate medical director of the Royal Berkshire Hospital where he has been working since 2007. 

Dr Chan qualified in medicine in 1997 with a commendation from the University of Aberdeen. He is a member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) and went on to do specialist rheumatology training in Oxford. He was awarded the Arthritis Research UK (ARUK) Clinical Research Fellowship from 2003 to 2006 when he completed his laboratory and clinical research into the immunology of rheumatic diseases. He was also awarded a PhD for his work on clinical immunology at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine.

Dr Chan is an examiner of the MRCP examinations, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a member of the British Society of Rheumatology and Immunology. He is a full member of the Assessment of Spondyloarthritis International Society (ASAS). In addition, he is a primary investigator for clinical research studies and works towards finding newer and more effective treatments for his patients. He was awarded the Best Care by a Rheumatologist by the National Axial Spondyloarthritis Society (NASS) in the Houses of Parliament in 2018. 

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