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The Skin Condition That's a Dark Sign of What's to Come

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Before I started medical school, I noticed something strange about the skin of some of my family members, the ones who were overweight or obese, like I was then.
Various folds of skin--on the neck, arms, and legs, among other places--I noticed their skin was darker and thicker. It didn't look the same as the rest of their bodies. I wondered what it was, what caused it--and whether I would also get it.

This dark, leathery skin is quite common, and you may even have this condition yourself. You might have brushed it off as a skin imperfection and thought that there was nothing that you could do about it. Would you believe that this condition can lead you to the diagnosis of medical disease?
Before we talk about what it can help diagnose, let's talk about motivation, one of my favorite topics. In my opinion it doesn’t really matter where your initial motivation for weight loss comes from. Vanity, a desire to fit in, trying to find a partner, hoping to get a better job--all of these reasons are fine.  But, these are “extrinsic motivators.”  What happens when you lose the weight and you meet these goals? What is going to keep you coming back?  Educating yourself about the effects of obesity is one tool that you can use to prove to yourself that the lifestyle changes are worth it, that you must be willing to stick to it for the long haul. 
One of the best things that you can to do to keep yourself coming back to SparkPeople (and reaching your goals) is to do things that motivate you and will withstand the test of time, such as your health.  So, I hope that you will take a moment to learn about something that you may have never heard of and something that may inspire you to continue reach towards and meet your goals. 
Let's let acanthosis nigricans, that skin change I mentioned earlier, be one of those motivators.  

Acanthosis Nigricans: What is It?

Acanthosis nigricans describes skin changes that are seen in association with certain medical conditions.  Acanthosis is derived from acantho, meaning thorn; nigricans means black.  This skin condition can be linked to obesity, cancer, and other medical conditions. (Click here to see photos of the condition.)
The good news is that is that the majority of people with acanthosis nigricans are obese and do not have any other underlying medical conditions that explain the skin changes.  But, unfortunately acanthosis nigricans is highly associated with insulin resistance and an increased chance of developing diabetes. 
In one study, African-American patients diagnosed with acanthosis nigricans had a 21 percent chance of testing positive for type 2 diabetes!

Why Does It Happen Can It Be Treated?

Let's learn more:
What causes these skin changes?  It is not clear, but what is clear is that its presence may signal an underlying unknown medical condition. 
Where do these skin changes occur? These skin changes are most frequently found around the neck, in the armpit, around the elbows, back of the fingers, breast folds, and skin folds in general.  The darkened skin may develop a thick leathery texture as well. 
What should you do if you find these changes? Make an appointment with your primary care physician.  In most cases you will be told to lose weight, but through testing you may also find out that you are prediabetic or perhaps already diabetic. 
Are these skin changes permanent?  Thankfully in most cases, no.  Weight loss and management of diabetes will reverse these skin changes.  If the skin darkening is resistant to lifestyle change or management of the underlying medical condition, a visit to a dermatologist may be in order.  There are some interventions that may provide some improvement. 
What is the take-home message?  Acanthosis nigricans is a skin condition that is closely associated with obesity and diabetes.  This skin condition, although on the surface may seem like a cosmetic issue, is usually a medical issue in disguise.  Acanthosis nigricans is like the "check engine" light on your car.  If you see this warning, you are in need of diagnostics and a checkup!  Stay consistent and you will reach your goals and keep sparking everyone!
Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.

Have you ever heard of this skin condition?  Is it something you've noticed on yourself or others?

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KHALIA2 9/4/2019
Thanks! Report
Great info! Thanks! Report
I don't have this condition, but know people who do and wondered what it was. Report
Thanks! Report
Very helpful article Report
I'm getting mixed messages when I read not to share any personal medical information, and then in the next paragraph, I'm being asked if this has ever happened to me or to anyone I know. Who edits this stuff? It's weird! Also, you might want to know that I did go to the link in the article and saw some nudity. You might want to go ahead and choose a picture to show us the condition. Probably the best one would be of someone's neck. That would help people to see what that might be like. I personally have not ever noticed this condition on anyone. But it looks like it can be very uncomfortable for some people, especially when it effects their mouths or eyes. And other parts I'm probably not supposed to mention.

Is this related to skin tags? Because one photo looked like skin tags. People with PCOS, Polycystic ovary syndrome, sometimes have skin tags, as well as this condition, acanthosis nigricans, from your article.

So happy to read a blog post on this! As a final year medical student, I know about this sign & I think it's so important for more people to recognize acanthosis nigricans & its significance too. Majority of the diabetic patients I've met over the past 3 years actually had acanthosis nigricans! Report
I have never heard of this condition. Thank you for your information. Report
Thanks. Report
I didn't know that, thanks. Report
thanks for sharing its an important post Report
Something to be on the lookout for! Report
Wow...I did not know about this. Report
Thank you so much for this informative blog. I've never heard of it and will check my own self with knowing this, and can maybe gracefully help others with this knowledge. Report
So glad this is now common knowledge. Eleven or so years ago no one seemed to know about this sign of insulin resistance. Thank you for getting the word out. Report
I had this after my son was born. This developed on my knees - they looked dirty all the time. I remember my mother asking why my knees were dirty! I also developed skin tags on my neck and upper torso (had never had them before), my face was constantly bright red (so that I still hate to look at any photos of my baby that include me), and I kept gaining weight, despite eating about the same as I always had and breastfeeding for 2 years. I think this was also when I developed Graves disease. I had no idea that these things could all be related to an underlying disorder. I believe it was only a series of unrelated medical issues that caused me to lose a lot of weight in a short time (about 60 pounds in 3 months - I literally was unable to eat solid food for that long) that halted it. My dirty knees went away, my skin tags disappeared, and my face didn't get as red (I've always reddened easily). The Graves didn't go away, though. :( Report
I have something similar BUT I know its from work as I only get it on the inside of my fingers and it usually improves with treatment and in the summer. Report
Great info! Report
Thank you for sharing and bringing this to our attention. What an amazing resource SP is... Report
....I even tell my hairdresser that if she notices this on her clients' necks while cutting their hair, to tell them to to get their blood sugar checked. Report
About 10 years ago, I always hated wearing my hair up because the back of my neck looked like it was dirty, like I hadn't washed the back of my neck. After researching on the Internet I found descriptions for AN and presented the info to my dr, who confirmed the diagnosis. I am Type II diabetic & overweight. Since managing my diabetes, the darkness has faded quite a bit, almost back to normal. Report
Great article! I wish it had been out when I was younger! I have always been overweight and one day when I was in my early teens my mom grabbed a wash cloth and started scrubbing my neck trying to get ride of it, thinking it was dirt. She was amazed to see how dark it was under my arms! I have lost over 50 pounds and it has lightened up some. I hope it goes away eventually, it's kind of embarrassing wondering if people think you're just dirty. Report
I have had this condition for about 5 years on my neck, underarms, & groin area. I have lost about 60 lbs. and notice it is lightening up a bit, hopefully it will go away in time. I also have vitiligo all over, just the opposite, white patches. The dermatologist told me to lose weight, so that's what I'm doing. Thanks for mentioning this skin disease, I never hear anyone ever talk about it. Report
Wow, I've had students with that condition and only thought they didn't clean themselves. I had a young lady, who was over weight who had the condition around her neck. Also had a young man who had it under his arms - and he did have terrible body odor - to the point that his peers would ask me to not ask questions when he was in class because he always raised his hand. In the hot months he wore a sleeveless shirt and I thought his arm pits were just stained with dirt. If I EVER see it again, I will alert the school nurse. Thanks for an informative blog.
Regarding motivation to staying the course - I fear the look on peoples faces if I were to gain it back. (And just today, someone shared a conversation with a supervisor who I didn't even think knew who I was in which she referred to me as "that skinny woman who lost all the weight") Guess who was beaming! Report
thanks for the article
I am glad there is a treatment plan for it. Report
I have a friend that is diabetic. Her daughter has this condition on her neck, I just showed this to her and she is going to get her daughter checked right away. Thank You so much. Report
Great article!!!!!!! I have them in some of my skin folds and I really hope they disapear once i lose the weight since it did say that they can go away once weight is lost. Report
2 years ago I noticed dark areas under my arm pits. Many years prior I had been diagnosed with insulin resistance, hypothyroidism and PCOS so I decided to research to see if it was related. Boy was I in for a surprise! Not only was it related, I found out I was in danger of diabetes. Luckily I found the strength to take care of Me and with SparkPeople was able to reverse my dark areas and get off my doctors "in trouble of getting diabetes list". Report
WOW,thank you so much,my only sister was just describing this to me yesterday on her hands,though she's 56 and been through so much she was clearly shaken and disgusted by the pain that she's been going through.I questioned her just as a doctor would about what she's been doing but she is diabetic.I will be printing this and sharing it with her today.So very helpful. Report
My son's pediatrician brought this to our attention when he was about 12 years old. She also tested his blood sugar level and was very candid with him about the risks of diabetes. It was a real wake up call to him-from then on he's done very well with exercise and watching what he eats.

I've noticed this same skin condition on my niece (she's very overweight). I don't know if my niece and my sister are aware of what might be going on.

We are African American (as is the pediatrician) and diabetes/obesity are major health concerns in the Black community. Knowledge is power. People need to keep current on health issues (even if you dismiss them or find that they don't apply to you). Your knowledge could help save a loved one.

Yes, people should consult a doctor about medical conditions, but how many people NEVER see a doctor until it's in the emergency room-more than you might think. Report
This is wonderful. I am better educated by this Blog and another good reason to make my losing weight a life time life style. Thanks for the info. Report
WOW - Thank you very much for talking about this condition. I have noticed this condition in many of my family members, but I always thought it was just some type of hereditary feature. To my knowledge, none of our physicians have ever mentioned the term Acanthosis nigricans. This article was a real eye opener. Thanks again ! Report
Very good article! I'd never heard of this before. Report
I had never heard of this. Thanks for educating me. Report
Thanks for the info! I've never noticed this before, you can believe I'll be looking now! I'm on my way to see if I have! Report
Wow! Something ELSE to be mindful of. Report
Wow, this is good information. If I can just learn to pronounce it! I have seen this on so many people and close relatives of mine. Of course I'm on my way to the mirror now to see if there are any on my body. THANK YOU so much for this enlightening article!!!! Report
I've seen this on a lot of people. And I have always associated it with obese people, though, I assumed it was most likely from the skin rubbing constantly. I am glad to see there is a cause for it, and that its not permanent. And I am very very glad I don't have this problem. Report
I have seen people with this dark colouring, but never knew the cause. Thanks for the information on this. I do not have it, and am fortunate. Report
As a volunteer and a gastric bypass patient, I work with patients who are preparing for gastric bypass or lapband surgery, and I have noticed the dark areas on some of them. I had learned a while ago that it was a sign of underlying conditions due to obesity; this article really put it all very succinctly. Thanks for sharing! Report
Very informative. Thank so much for sharing. Report
I have this and never knew why. Being obese all my life I just figured it was just normal skin colors. I have notice since I've loss some weight the skin on my neck has gotten lighter. Thanks for info. Report
Thanks a lot for this blog. When my son's doctor told me about those marks I couldn't believe him. I also have these marks on my elbows. This is another reason to continue my journey to get myself and my family on shape and be healthy.

Ileana Report
Wow, Thank you for posting this. I have never heard of or seen this condition. Good to know. Report
Never heard of this before! Report
I have acanthosis nigricans on my neck. I have insulin resistance, and I had it for years without knowing. If only a doctor had thought to look at my neck! I heard about it from a TV show and then I took a look in the mirror and I was shocked. I made an appointment with an endocrinologist right away and got an official diagnosis. My insulin levels are down, but the AN is still there. Not sure it will ever go away. Report
I am seeing a lot folks speak up about skin tags. I have them too but many have fallen off since I have lost weight. A dermatologist can clip off the skin tags. If they get irritated, some insurance companies cover it otherwise it may be considered cosmetic. Mine did not cover it and for $150.00, my Dermatologist took the time to take them all off. I was glad I did it because thery had affected my self esteem.

interesting article Report
Thank-you for sharing - one more thing to keep me motivated to move forward.

Purrrpy Report
I believe I have this. I researched this before going to a dermatologist appointment I had scheduled for scars and acne etc. When I asked about it my dermatologist said she disagreed because my skin didn't feel 'velvety' to her. Yet, she offered me no other explanation.

I do believe that what I have is acanthosis nigricans. Because I do not have health insurance anymore I can not see a doctor. However, when I saw the dermotologist I had just had a physical and was told my sugars were normal and that I was not insulin resistant or at risk for diabetes.

I've now lost 27lbs but have 44 lbs more to go. I can't even remember what it was like to not have this embarrassing dark neck and underarms. I ALWAYS wear thick necklaces or shirts that help cover it.

Hopefully when I get back to a healthy weight this will no longer be an issue. Report