Acanthosis Nigricans (AN) causes unsightly and itchy patches on the skin folds, especially on the neck. The affected skin looks dirty and even the most intense scrubbing cannot get rid of the patches. These patches may appear even in otherwise healthy individuals; but most of those afflicted have underlying medical problems like diabetes, Cushing’s disease, pituitary disorders and endocrine abnormalities. Remarkably, these medical problems are common in obese individuals and majority of people affected by AN are obese as well.
The treatment for Acanthosis Nigricans works to improve the affected area’s appearance. Furthermore, the underlying medical problem is also treated accordingly. Meanwhile, cosmetic treatments help to address the discoloration of the skin. And since most of AN patients are obese too, a healthy diet and lifestyle also helps in improving the condition.
Causes of Acanthosis Nigricans
The reason behind AN is not clearly understood but research showed that the condition is common in people with very high levels of insulin in their blood. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that is important in processing and converting sugar (glucose) into energy. High levels of insulin occur when the cells resist or do not respond to insulin causing the pancreas to produce more insulin. With elevated levels of insulin, the body produces a special kind of cell called the melanocyte which likewise produces melanin – a substance that determines the darkness or lightness of the skin.
Insulin resistance could be the result of any of the following medical conditions:
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
- Cushing’s Disease
- Addison’s Disease
- Hormonal disorders
Acanthosis nigricans may likewise be caused by certain medications, like corticosteroids and contraceptives. It could also be indicative of a more serious medical condition, such as cancer wherein a malignant tumor develops either in the liver, colon or stomach.
Distinguishing Acanthosis Nigricans from other skin problems
AN differs from other skin problems in a way that it causes skin darkening on the skin folds particularly visible at the back of the neck, groin and armpit. It could likewise occur on other parts of the body, such as the knuckles, elbows and knees. People with acanthosis nigricans still have soft skin but the affected area appears darkened and thick, smelly and itchy. The changes brought about by the condition appear slowly, from months to years. Still, these changes may materialize suddenly in some individuals.
Acanthosis nigricans is not contagious and is generally harmless but should be viewed as a warning against an underlying health problem due to the involvement of insulin-related problems like Type 2 diabetes, hormonal problems and even certain types of cancers. This is the reason why the condition should be thoroughly checked to determine the cause and confirm or invalidate the possibility of cancer and other health problems.
Diagnosis of Acanthosis nigricans
The condition can be easily identified by simple physical inspection. However, the doctor will try to figure out the underlying cause through blood work and laboratory tests. He or she will check the medical history of the patient and request for a skin biopsy to have a closer look at the skin tissues. But skin biopsy is only done when the doctor is still uncertain about the underlying cause or suspects cancer.
The survival rate for the condition is poor among those who developed acanthosis nigricans due to certain types of cancer. Malignant tumors usually spread very quickly and death occurs within 2 years after diagnosis. On the other hand, those who developed the disease either because of insulin-resistance problem or obesity have better chances of survival.
Treatment of Acanthosis Nigricans
There is no definite way to treat AN. The doctor recommends the suitable treatment based on the cause, and this is only after he or she has conducted a thorough diagnosis. If the condition is not related to any underlying health problem, the treatment is focused on improving the skin discoloration. This may involve the use of antibacterial soaps, prescription creams and ointments, acne medications and laser treatment for thickened skin.
If skin darkening is caused by an underlying health problem, the treatment is aimed at addressing this problem, and may involve:
Appropriate medications are prescribed to address hormonal disorders caused by problematic thyroid, ovary or adrenal glands.
- Dietary and lifestyle changes
Dietary and lifestyle modifications are sometimes all that is needed to treat AN, especially among obese individuals.
Surgery is usually done when cancerous tumor is involved.
The skin discoloration caused by acanthosis nigricans has been found to improve when the underlying cause is treated. Some individuals cannot totally avoid AN from developing, especially those who have a family history of the disorder; those suffering from obesity; individuals below 40 years of age; and persons of American, African and Indian descent. Maintaining a healthy weight and living a healthy lifestyle can provide the right amount of protection against obesity which could lead to AN and other related medical problems.
Acanthosis Nigricans Pictures