What Are Striae Distensae?

wiseGEEK Writer

Striae distensae are better known as stretch marks, and they are linear scars that first appear pink and eventually fade to a white or translucent color. In most cases, they’re not a medically dangerous sign, but some people feel self-conscious about them. It’s also not always clear why some people get striae, while others don’t. Some common causes of their appearance are normal growth, pregnancy, steroid use, or Cushing’s disease. A few treatments for stretch marks exist, but they are usually not medically necessary or totally successful.

Because nicotine found in cigarettes damages the fibers and connective tissues in the skin, people who smoke may be more likely to develop stretch marks.
Because nicotine found in cigarettes damages the fibers and connective tissues in the skin, people who smoke may be more likely to develop stretch marks.

When striae distensae first appear they may be pink or purple in color. Occasionally, people notice itching of the skin as the marks form. In some patients, these marks will fade almost totally, but others may continue to have evidence of them. Sometimes wrinkling of the skin around multiple striae distensae also occurs, which may draw more attention to this skin scarring. A number of individuals suffer poor self-esteem when numerous striae are in evidence, and they might avoid showing those parts of the body where they occur, such as arms, legs, hips or belly.

Female abdomen with striae distensae.
Female abdomen with striae distensae.

Medical research has not fully discovered why people develop stretch marks, though there are times when they are most likely to form. During puberty, rapid growth is associated with striae distensae on the breasts, arms, buttocks, and legs. Quick weight gain may also result in more stretch marks. Further, in pregnancy, the arms, breasts and especially the belly may be more likely to show evidence of striae distensae.

When the adrenal glands release too much cortisol, patients develop Cushing’s disease.
When the adrenal glands release too much cortisol, patients develop Cushing’s disease.

People who use steroids for bodybuilding or for medical purposes tend to get these marks, too. Another possible explanation is Cushing’s disease. This is a high level of cortisol in the body, which causes the face to become rounded and results in a high number of striae. It may result from natural causes or from taking certain steroids.

Many pregnant women use cocoa butter to prevent stretch marks.
Many pregnant women use cocoa butter to prevent stretch marks.

There are some potential treatments for striae distensae. Retinoid products or certain fruit acids may diminish the look of scarring. Treatment usually works best when it is undertaken soon after striae distensae are noticed. This isn’t always possible. If striae are occurring as a result of changing circumstances, like an expanding belly in pregnancy, it may not be safe or appropriate to try to remove them until the pregnancy is over.

Quick weight gain may cause striae distensae.
Quick weight gain may cause striae distensae.

In most cases, treatment is optional, and it is unlikely to be covered by insurance. Since striae distensae generally aren’t considered a health hazard, treating them falls into the category of optional or cosmetic surgeries. Sometimes the position of a scar might place people at slightly more risk for skin rupturing if a serious injury were to occur. In these cases, removing a scar might be considered medically necessary, but the chances of this occurring are quite rare.

Creams that contain vitamin E may be helpful in treating stretch marks.
Creams that contain vitamin E may be helpful in treating stretch marks.

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