Ehlers Danlos syndrome is a group of disorders that affect connective tissues, which are tissues that support the skin, bones, blood vessels, and other organs. Defects in connective tissues cause the signs and symptoms of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which vary from mildly loose joints to life-threatening complications.
In the past, there were more than 10 recognized types of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. In 1997, researchers proposed a simpler classification that reduced the number of major types to six and gave them descriptive names: the arthrochalasia type, the classic type, the dermatosparaxis type, the hypermobility type, the kyphoscoliosis type, and the vascular type. Other forms of the condition may exist, but they have been reported only in single families or are not well characterized.
Although all types of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome affect the joints and many also affect the skin, features vary by type. An unusually large range of joint movement (hypermobility) occurs with most forms of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, particularly the hypermobility type. Infants with hypermobile joints often appear to have weak muscle tone, which can delay the development of motor skills such as sitting, standing, and walking. The loose joints are unstable and prone to dislocation, chronic pain, and early-onset arthritis. Dislocations involving both hips are a characteristic finding in infants with the arthrochalasia type of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
Many people with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome have soft, velvety skin that is highly elastic (stretchy) and fragile. Affected individuals tend to bruise easily, and some types of the condition also cause abnormal scarring. People with the classic form of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome experience wounds that split open with little bleeding and leave scars that widen over time to create characteristic shallow “cigarette paper” scars. The dermatosparaxis type of the disorder is characterized by skin that sags and wrinkles. Extra (redundant) folds of skin may be present as affected children get older.
Although it is difficult to estimate the overall frequency of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, the combined prevalence of all types of this condition may be about 1 in 5,000 individuals worldwide. The hypermobility and classic forms are most common; the hypermobility type may affect as many as 1 in 10,000 to 15,000 people, while the classic type probably occurs in 1 in 20,000 to 40,000 people.
Signs and symptoms of the most common form of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome include:
- Overly flexible joints. Because the connective tissue that holds joints together is looser, your joints can move far past the normal range of motion. Small joints are affected more than large joints. You might also be able to touch the tip of your nose with your tongue.
- Stretchy skin. Weakened connective tissue allows your skin to stretch much more than usual. You may be able to pull a pinch of skin up away from your flesh, but it will snap right back into place when you let go. Your skin might also feel exceptionally soft and velvety.
- Fragile skin. Damaged skin often doesn’t heal well. For example, the stitches used to close a wound often will tear out and leave a gaping scar. These scars may look thin and crinkly.
Symptom severity can vary from person to person. Some people with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome will have overly flexible joints, but few or none of the skin symptoms.
Vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
People who have the vascular subtype of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome often share distinctive facial features of a thin nose, thin upper lip, small earlobes and prominent eyes. They also have thin, translucent skin that bruises very easily. In fair-skinned people, the underlying blood vessels are very visible through the skin.
One of the most severe forms of the disorder, vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can weaken your heart’s largest artery (aorta), as well as the arteries to your kidneys and spleen. A rupture of any of these blood vessels can be fatal. The vascular subtype also can weaken the walls of the uterus or large intestines — which may also rupture.
There is no cure for Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, but treatment can help you manage your symptoms and prevent further complications.
Your doctor may prescribe drugs to help you control:
- Pain. If over-the-counter pain relievers — such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) — aren’t enough, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications for your joint or muscle pain.
- Blood pressure. Because blood vessels are more fragile in some types of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, your doctor may want to reduce the stress on the vessels by keeping your blood pressure low.
Joints with weak connective tissue are more likely to dislocate. Exercises to strengthen the muscles around a joint can help stabilize the joint. Your physical therapist might also recommend specific braces to help prevent joint dislocations.
Surgical and other procedures
In rare cases, surgery is recommended to repair joints damaged by repeated dislocations. However, your skin and the connective tissue of the affected joint may not heal properly after the surgery.
To see a list of states that have established EDS Support Groups please visit:
Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation
Genetics Home Reference