Systemic sclerosis (SSc)-related digital ischaemia is a major cause of morbidity, resulting from a combination of microvascular and digital artery disease. Photoacoustic imaging offers a newly available, non-invasive method of imaging digital artery structure and oxygenation. The aim of this study was to establish whether photoacoustic imaging could detect and measure vasculopathy in digital arteries, including the level of oxygenation, in patients with SSc and healthy controls. 22 patients with SSc and 32 healthy controls (HC) underwent photoacoustic imaging of the fingers. Vascular volume and oxygenation were assessed across eight fingers at the middle phalanx. In addition, oxygenation change during finger occlusion was measured at the non-dominant ring finger and the vascular network was imaged along the length of one finger for qualitative assessment. There was no statistically significant difference in vascular volume between patients with SSc and HC (mean of eight fingers; SSc, median 118.6 IQR [95.0-130.5] vs. HC 115.6 [97.8-158.9]) mm3. However, baseline oxygenation (mean 8 fingers) was lower in SSc vs. HC (0.373 [0.361-0.381] vs. 0.381 [0.373-0.385] arbitrary sO2 units respectively; p = 0.03). Hyperaemic oxygenation response following occlusion release was significantly lower in SSc compared to HC (0.379 [0.376-0.381] vs. 0.382 [0.377-0.385]; p = 0.03). Whilst vascular volume was similar between groups, digital artery oxygenation was decreased in patients with SSc as compared to HC, indicative of functional deficit. Photoacoustic imaging offers an exciting new method to image the vascular network in patients with SSc and the possibility to capture oxygenation as a functional measure.

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