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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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I had hundreds of skin tags on my neck when I was heavy. The ones I still have (very few) are much smaller. I just wonder if this is how this skin condition manifested in me. My son, who has lost 100 lbs, but needs to lose another 200 lbs. has many hundreds of skin tags as well. Since he is a man, he keeps his hair short, and they are very visible. (I always kept my hair long to cover the ones on my neck.) The skin tags also show up under our arms, and around my breasts and on my stomach. I suppose it is in places where skin rubs against skin. I used to get a rash under my breasts too, which I no longer get. GOD help me keep this weight off. Report
Interesting article. Even infants and children who are not overweight can develop this skin condition. Personally I do not have this skin condition. I have noticed it on some folks - both overweight and normal weight, although more prevelant in overweight adults. I was surprised though there was no mention of possible underlying thyroid disease when the condition is present around the neck region. From my research and living with thyroid disease, this is common for those who have undiagnosed thyroid disease. Report
Thanks, this was very informative. I think I may have had this in patches below my elbows. The skin always looked dirty.

It disappeared when I lost weight. I am fortunate. Report
Thanks for sharing! I am very fortunate not to have this condition, but this is excellent information.

Acanthosis nigricans is also common in dogs, especially where they over-groom their skin. Report
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