Undifferentiated connective tissue disease (UCTD) refers to a systemic autoimmune condition that does not meet the diagnostic criteria for any specific connective tissue disease (CTD).

Connective tissue connects, supports, binds, or separates other tissues or organs throughout the body. It consists of a variety of proteins, such as collagen and elastin. The term connective tissue disease (CTD) describes a condition that impacts the function or structure of connective tissue.

There are many different types of CTD, each with its own diagnostic criteria. If the features of a CTD do not fulfill the criteria for any one disease, a health expert may refer to it as a UCTD.

Some people may never develop a fully definable condition. However, over time, a person with UCTD may receive a diagnosis of a specific CTD.

This article discusses UCTD, including the potential causes, symptoms, and diagnostic criteria.

A person laying down.Share on Pinterest
Lucas Ottone/Stocksy

Conditions that impact the structure or function of connective tissue are known as CTDs. There are more than 200 of these conditions, which clinicians may categorize into three types:

UCTD is a systemic autoimmune condition. This means that instead of the immune system fighting off infections, it mistakenly attacks healthy connective tissue, which can cause various problems.

CTDs typically have defining features that help a doctor reach a diagnosis. When an autoimmune condition does not present with the classic features of a particular condition but still features some signs or symptoms of CTD, a doctor may refer to it as UCTD.

A UCTD may never develop into a definable condition, but if it does, this typically occurs within 5 years of diagnosis.

Learn more about autoimmune conditions here.

Due to the nature of UCTDs, doctors may have difficulty defining potential causes. There is currently no single known cause of UCTDs. However, most autoimmune conditions typically result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Some doctors believe that a person may be genetically predisposed or at risk of developing CTD, which leaves them more susceptible to triggers such as infections or environmental factors.

Other risk factors for developing UCTD may include:

  • Gender: Females are more likely to develop UCTD than males.
  • Age: UCTD is more common in people aged 30–44 years.
  • Vitamin D: Some research suggests that a person with low vitamin D levels may be at a higher risk of developing UCTD.
  • Nutrition: Other evidence highlights a link between nutrition and autoimmune diseases. It is important to consume a nutritious, balanced, and anti-inflammatory diet to reduce the chances of developing an autoimmune disease such as UCTD.

Some reports have indicated that COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine may have triggered UCTD in some people, but this is rare.

While evidence remains minimal, research notes that infectious agents can potentially trigger the onset of autoimmune conditions.

Learn more about genetic conditions here.

UCTD can affect different parts of the body and often has many symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms may include:

If a person is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it may indicate that they have an autoimmune condition, such as UCTD, which may warrant medical investigation.

Learn more about autoimmune conditions and their symptoms here.

Some evidence indicates that roughly a quarter of individuals who visit a rheumatology clinic may receive a diagnosis of UCTD. Other research suggests up to 90% of UCTD cases occur in females, especially between the ages of 32–44. Additionally, up to 50% of people with a CTD diagnosis may have an underlying UCTD.

UCTD is difficult to diagnose, and it often requires a rheumatologist. Typically, they will use a combination of the following to reach a diagnosis:

A person may develop new symptoms at any time after receiving a diagnosis of UCTD. These can help a doctor reach a new diagnosis.

Learn all about inflammation here.

Currently, there is no cure for UCTD. Early recognition and management of the condition are crucial, as it is a chronic condition that often requires medical therapy for many years.

Before recommending treatment, a doctor will first establish the nature and extent of any organ damage.

A doctor will usually prescribe various medications to help a person manage the condition, including:

It is advisable that people with a UCTD attend regular medical appointments to ensure their UCTD is not worsening or developing into a defined CTD.

The prognosis of UCTD typically depends on the amount of organ involvement. Up to 60% of people who receive a diagnosis for UCTD remain undifferentiated, while others progress to a defined CTD.

If a person develops a defined CTD, it most commonly occurs within the first 5 years following the onset of symptoms. Roughly 10­­–20% of people with UCTD will never develop a defined CTD, and their symptoms will likely become less severe or disappear over time.

The life expectancy of a person with UCTD typically depends on whether their symptoms develop into a defined CTD. Some evidence notes that these individuals may expect similar survival rates to those diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) or RA.

A 2019 review adds that there is a lack of clinical practice guidelines available for those with UCTD. This means that a person with UCTD may experience uncomfortable symptoms and find it difficult to fully understand the diagnosis.

They may also experience uncertainty regarding their diagnosis, which may influence their treatment strategies and the risk of developing complications.

Learn about the outlook and life expectancy for people with RA here.

Undifferentiated connective tissue disease (UCTD) describes an autoimmune condition that affects connective tissue. Connective tissue diseases (CTDs) usually have specific diagnostic criteria. However, when a condition does not meet the criteria for a CTD, a doctor may diagnose a UCTD.

The signs and symptoms of UCTD vary greatly and may overlap with other conditions, making it difficult for a doctor to diagnose and treat.

The symptoms of UCTD may be mild, although they may progress into a CTD. If a person experiences symptoms such as joint pain and rashes, it is advisable to contact a doctor.