What You Should Know about Stretch Marks

By Dr. Okechukwu Amako, MBBS (Ibadan)
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Many people have stretch marks and are asking questions and looking for ways on how to take care of them. Some people can't even go to the swimming pool again because of these stretch marks, especially women.

How do stretch marks occur? The skin is made up of three major layers: the first layer provides a waterproof covering for the body; the second layer contains strong connective tissue and structures that give rise to hairs and produce sweat; the third is made up of fat and a connective tissue called fascia. The fascia covers the muscles in the body.

The second layer of the skin containing strong connective tissue known as collagen is elastic; this elastic nature allows movement of any body part in any direction. Also, this connective tissue gradually grows to accommodate the increase in body size that occurs, especially during puberty or pregnancy.

However, stretch marks appear when the increase in body size occurs faster than the growth of the skin. This can happen

-in pregnancy

-during puberty when there's rapid increase in overall body size

-in people who are obese because of the rapid increase in fat accumulation in different areas of their body

-due to a rapid increase in muscle mass in some people doing weight lifting

So, when the rate of increase in body size outpaces the growth of the skin, the elastic second layer comes under severe stretching pressure. With time, this layer begins to break down in some parts of the body such as the tummy, the buttocks, the upper thighs, the inner part of the upper arms, or the breasts, leading to stretch marks which appear as slightly raised straight pink or brown lines in these body parts.

It is important to know that

1. Stretch marks can be genetic meaning a family can have a genetic predisposition to a skin whose second layer is not very elastic and which breaks down even with normal body growth. And this can be passed from parents to their children in such families.

2. Stretch marks can signal a medical condition called Cushing disease in which a hormone called cortisol is produced in abnormally high quantities. The affected person is obese, especially around the tummy with prominent stretch marks.

How can stretch marks be treated or prevented?

The truth is stretch marks do not cause any harm and don't require any medical attention. For those who are uncomfortable with their stretch marks, there are a few treatment options and the slightly effective ones may not be available in this part of the world.

1. There are claims that some oil lotions and cream can clear stretch marks; however, there is no concrete evidence that any of such works.

2. Stretch marks that occurred due to pregnancy will gradually fade after the baby is born. They will likely not clear completely because these marks are tiny scars from the breakdown of the skin's middle layer.

3. Stretch marks may gradually fade when the affected skin areas are massaged in a circular manner with the finger using oil lotions

4. Cosmetic surgery in which a specialist surgeon uses laser or other techniques to work on the skin can significantly improve the appearance of the skin of people with stretch marks but it can't remove the stretch marks completely. In addition, cosmetic surgery is expensive, risky and may not be available in this part of the world.

5. If the stretch marks appeared suddenly with no corresponding association such as puberty, weight lifting or pregnancy, it may be a sign of a medical condition called Cushing disease, especially if the person is obese around the tummy where the stretch marks occur majorly. In this case, a doctor must be consulted for a referral to a specialist doctor called an endocrinologist who is an expert in treating such conditions.

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Published Friday, April 21st 2017

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