LV myocardial involvement, even though subclinical and, thus, frequently underestimated, is associated to a worse prognosis of the disease, leading to increased risk of cardiovascular complications in SSc patients [14, 15]. Since standard echocardiography, with the assessment of LVEF and PW Doppler mitral inflow parameters, proved to be, in various diseases and SSc as well, often inadequate to identify early myocardial abnormalities, other diagnostic tools are needed in order to detect the onset of cardiac involvement [16–18]. In this respect, TDI and, more recently, 2D strain, have been shown to provide a more accurate evaluation of myocardial function.
The main findings of the present study are: 1) the impairment of both LS and CS, detectable only by means of 2D strain, in asymptomatic SSc patients in the absence of significant differences regarding other echocardiographic parameters, including TDI, in comparison with healthy subjects; 2) a significant correlation of both LS and CS with serum levels of Scl-70 antibodies; 3) a greater impairment of LS and CS in patients showing cardiovascular events during follow-up; 4) higher values of serum levels of Scl-70 antibodies in patients with cardiovascular events.
Along with multiple reports of RV abnormalities in SSc, usually secondary to vascular and interstitial lung disease resulting into pulmonary hypertension [19, 20], a primary LV involvement related to organic and functional alterations of microvasculature, including reduced coronary flow reserve, has been observed [21–24]; in support of these data, studies performed using single photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) have shown multiple ventricular perfusion defects in the absence of coronary artery disease documented by angiography, particularly in patients with pulmonary hypertension [25, 26]. Owing to this vasculopathy, a “patchy” myocardial fibrosis develops, with a distribution unrelated to coronary vessels territories [27–30], leading, as consequences, to multiple LV diastolic and systolic abnormalities including lower TDI velocities and impaired myocardial deformation [31, 32]. In this respect, a direct relation between myocardial reflectivity, evaluated by integrated cardiac ultrasound backscatter, and LV deformation parameters was found by Mele et al. , with a more pronounced impairment of myocardial function in patients with diffuse SSc with respects to the limited form of disease, thus, confirming the pivotal role of myocardial fibrosis in cardiac involvement in SSc. Similarly, previous studies have shown, particularly in diffuse SSc, various myocardial function abnormalities including lower TDI velocities and impaired strain despite normal standard echocardiographic parameters [34, 35]. In this respect, TDI, although characterized by excellent temporal resolution, presents some limitations including angle dependency, the impossibility to distinguish passive from active motion and arbitrary choice of regions of interest ; on the other hand, 2D strain, even though currently limited by a still lacking standardization of reference values particularly due to inter-vendor variability, proved to be more sensitive and accurate, than TDI, in the assessment of myocardial deformation and, therefore, in the detection of early myocardial abnormalities in various diseases [37, 38]. Our findings support these data, as we observed impaired LS and CS in spite of preserved other echocardiographic parameters including TDI velocities. Similarly, Spethmann et al.  reported, in SSc patients with normal LVEF, an impairment of LV global longitudinal strain and strain rate, assessed by use of speckle-tracking echocardiography, with, especially, a reduced deformation of basal myocardial segments. Furthermore, an association of impaired LS and CS with lower values of peak VO2 and abnormal Holter electrocardiographic findings has been, previously, observed in SSc patients . In this respect, the impairment of LV longitudinal deformation may reflect, despite preserved LVEF, the early onset of cardiac involvement, since longitudinal subendocardial fibers are known to be, particularly, vulnerable to myocardial damage and ischemia. Furthermore, in patients with more advanced LV myocardial involvement, an impairment of CS, in addition to abnormal longitudinal deformation, may occur, as found in our study.
We observed, moreover, particularly impaired LS and CS in patients with cardiovascular events during follow-up, whereas, interestingly, no significant differences, with respects to the occurrence of cardiovascular events, were found regarding other echocardiographic parameters, such as LVEF, diastolic mitral inflow parameters, RV measurements and TDI velocities. In this respect, so far, to the best of our knowledge, only in our study, cardiovascular events have been found to be associated with impaired LV longitudinal and circumferential myocardial deformations. These data, together with other results, obtained by Hinchcliff et al. , concerning the association between LV TDI velocities and increased risk of death in SSc, suggest that new echocardiographic techniques, such as 2D strain, may be useful not only in the detection of early LV myocardial involvement in SSc but also in the identification of patients at greater risk of cardiovascular events. In this regard, the early diagnosis of cardiovascular involvement in these patients may be particularly valuable in order to provide a more adequate therapeutic management, such as the beginning of cardioprotective drugs including inhibitors of renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system and beta-blockers, even though this therapeutic approach has not been widely investigated, so far, in such a clinical setting.
In addition, we found a significant relation between the impairment of LS and CS and higher serum concentrations of Scl-70 antibodies, with particularly lower values of myocardial deformation at very high serum levels of antibodies. Moreover, very high values of Scl-70 antibodies serum levels were observed in patients showing cardiovascular events. These findings support the prognostic relevance of the abnormalities of LV myocardial deformation in these patients, since Scl-70 antibodies, found in about 15–20% of patients, portend a poorer clinical outcome of the disease, as widely reported . Although reports have been, so far, pointed out on the association of these antibodies with restrictive lung disease, pulmonary hypertension and RV functional abnormalities , to date a relation between Scl-70 antibodies and LV involvement in SSc, to the best of our knowledge, has not been, previously, described.