Stretch marks: Causes and prevention

05-03-2015 | 
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The appearance of stretch marks or striae is a common problem. And it is a common misbelief that these undesired signs of growth only affect pregnant ladies: If you do regular weight training, they might appear on your skin, too. Moreover, the appearance of striae without any good reason might be a sign of certain illnesses, too. So, how do stretch marks develop and what can we do against them (if we can do anything at all)?

Those lousy “tiger stripes”...

You have surely heard about them, seen some on other people or you might even have one or two (or more) yourself. For the first time, most people associate stretch marks with pregnant women, even though striae have originally not much to do with pregnancy, but rather with excessive weight gain, which makes the skin stretch. But this can result from several physical conditions and pregnancy is only one of them. The development of striae depends on genetic factors to some extent. However, there are conditions when stretch marks will appear on the skin regardless of one’s genetic tendencies.

Stretch marks are somewhat more common among ladies than among men, which can be traced back to the fundamental differences in skin structure: The female connective tissue is looser and weaker in structure. Striae may appear on the skin in the most variable shapes and sizes, depending on the underlying cause. And there are plenty of possible causes.

The development of striae and the causes

When the skin is stretching and the underlying connective tissue cannot keep up with the pace of stretching, that will result in ruptures or tears in the fibers of the connective tissue. In this case, striae will appear perpendicular to the direction of stretching. They first appear as reddish or purple lines, which will gradually fade to a lighter range in time. At the end they will look like scars after e.g. surgery. These scars will never disappear, so it is just another common misbelief that you can get rid of these undesired stretch marks by simple cosmetic means. The most typical causes are the following:

  • Obesity
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Pregnancy (in case of women, of course)
  • Muscle growth
  • Certain hormonal changes
  • Medical conditions that entail increase in cortisol levels (e.g. adrenocortical hyperfunction)
  • Taking corticosteroids

There are different designations for stretch marks in medical terminology, based on the causes. Pregnancy stretch marks are called striae gravidarum. These typically appear on the lower abdomen, near the navel, on the breasts, around the hips or waist, on the lower back or on the thighs. Tears resulting from obesity may appear anywhere on the body, depending on individual characteristics. And among bodybuilders, they usually appear around the breast, the armpits or the shoulders, due to rapid growth. However, rapid muscle growth is often not even required: It’s enough if you are prone to developing striae, and you will most likely “jump out of your skin”.

Striae resulting from certain medical conditions can be a more difficult issue, since the underlying cause cannot be eliminated so quickly most of the time. Cortisol produced due to adrenocortical hyperfunction may have a drastic impact on your skin condition: Cortisol namely prevents fibroblasts (the basic “blocks” of which the connective tissue is built up) from building collagen and elastic fibers, which are essential for a healthy skin tone. As a consequence, striae may appear in any size and anywhere on the body, regardless of your physical activity. The appearance of stretch marks is a typical symptom of Cushing's disease, for example.

The only positive thing we can say for the striae is that they are totally harmless and carry no health risks themselves. In extreme cases they might tear further, and cause bleeding on the affected area (as it happened to me). But this happens rarely. No need to worry about it, provided that you are not putting extreme load on the body part affected by the stretch mark. 

What can we do against stretch marks?

We have bad news: We can hardly do anything. As we mentioned before, striae may appear for several reasons, and if you already have some, you will never get rid of them. Stretch marks will fade and grow thinner in time, which is far better than having bright red stripes on your skin. Getting a tan (either by the sun or a tanning bed) may also have a positive impact on your skin condition: even though there is no pigmentation in the striae, tanning will improve the overall appearance of your skin. The only solution which may bring truly visible results is surgical intervention. These treatments are performed by plastic surgeons. As a result, striae will become thinner and fainter in color, and the number of fibroblasts in the connective tissue under the striae will increase. This can be achieved i.a. by using lotions containing tretinoin. This is the carboxylic acid form of vitamin Aand it may have teratogenic effects (adverse effects to the fetus), therefore they shall not be applied during pregnancy. Other methods are e.g. neodymium-YAG laser treatment or intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy, which also increase the number of fibroblasts and collagen fibers.

Using these treatments, an improvement of about 51 to 75% can be achieved during a six-week treatment period. However, in case of larger tears, which are present for a long time, even these methods can bring only minor changes.

Concerning prevention, another common misbelief is that you may prevent stretch marks by using  quality lotion on a regular basis. Actually, this is also a myth, since a lotion has absolutely no effect on the connective tissue under the skin, no matter how much you have paid for it. On the other hand, although there is no scientific evidence for the following methods either, you can definitely reduce the severity levels of your striae (if you have any) by following a few basic rules. It is very important to drink enough to ensure your tissues are hydrated. A regular supply of micro-nutrients, i.e. vitamins and minerals is also of high importance. And Collagen intake can help your system produce elastic fibers and ensure that the fibroblasts are functioning properly, which is crucial for maintaining a healthy skin tone.

All in all, if you have a tendency to develop striae and you lift weights regularly, you will most likely face stretch marks sooner or later. And although many believe that having stretch marks is a total disaster, I don’t think the situation is so dreary: Most people don’t even notice them, especially if they have already faded out. And, as a last resort, you can achieve significant improvement by using the methods mentioned above. But even if you just take more care of the above tips and hints, you might spare yourself from the “tiger” (stripes). :)


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