Medical doctors frequently get patients with Raynaud's phenomenon (RP), a frequent symptom in the general population, referred. The importance of distinguishing normal capillaroscopic findings from (pathognomonic) abnormal (pathological) findings, lies in the fact that this distinction allows the differentiation between a primary RP (not connected to any connective tissue disease [CTD]) from a secondary RP due to systemic sclerosis (SSc) and diseases of the scleroderma spectrum.
What is normal in primary RP?A normal capillaroscopic pattern, by qualitative assessment, is characterized by a homogeneous distribution of hairpin shaped capillaries as a “comb-like structure”, with a density of between 9-14 capillaries per mm. Yet, there exists a wide intra- and inter-individual variety in a normal population which will be discussed in this session.
What is pathognomonic abnormal in patients with RP due to SSc?Patients with the RP who have an underlying clinically recognizable (= with skin involvement) SSc show a very characteristic combination of capillary abnormalities in the nailfold, which can easily be assessed through qualitative assessment (= pattern recognition). Maricq et al. described last century, with the widefield technique (magnification X12-14) the scleroderma pattern. This pathognomonic combination contains the following: a striking widening of all three segments of the capillary loop (arterial, venous and intermediate), loss of capillaries, disorganization of the nailfold capillary bed. Many branched “bushy” capillaries may also be observed.
In 2000, Cutolo et al. qualitatively assessed the nailfolds of an SSc cohort with patients fulfilling the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) criteria for SSc with the nailfold videocapillaroscopic (NVC) technique (magnification X200). According to the different proportions of the hallmark parameters of the scleroderma pattern (giants, capillary loss, hemorrhages and [neo]angiogenesis) Cutolo et al. defined three patterns “early”, “active” and “late”.
The central role of capillaroscopy in distinction between a primary and secondary RP due to SSc is reflected by the fact that capillaroscopy is one of the new ACR/EULAR criteria for classifying a patient as having SSc.
Besides playing a paramount role in distinguishing a primary from secondary RP, capillaroscopy has an additional role. It can inform the rheumatologist dealing with a patient population with merely the RP and no other signs of a CTD, who will futurely develop SSc. This role is reflected by capillaroscopy playing a central role in the LeRoy and VEDOSS criteria for (very) early diagnosis of SSc.
Cutolo M, et al. Nailfold videocapillaroscopy assessment of microvascular damage in systemic sclerosis. J Rheumatol. 2000;27(1):155-60.
Smith V, et al. When and how to perform the capillaroscopy. In: Cutolo M, editor. Atlas of Capillaroscopy in Rheumatic Diseases. Milano: Elsevier Srl; 2010. p. 33-42.
Disclosure of Interest V. Smith Grant/Research support from: Actelion