Morphea (mor-FEE-uh) is a rare skin condition that causes reddish or purplish patches on your skin. Morphea is a localized or limited form of scleroderma, a condition that can cause a wide variety of problems, from skin discoloration to difficulty with the function of joints and muscles and other connective tissues.

Morphea typically appears on your abdomen, chest or back, but it can affect your face, arms and legs. Morphea tends to affect only the outermost layers of your skin — the dermis and the fatty tissue just beneath the dermis. Sometimes, morphea can restrict movement in your joints.

Morphea generally subsides on its own over time. With morphea, you may be concerned about your appearance. Your doctor may recommend medications and other treatments to help with your appearance and other symptoms of morphea.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Morphea is a form of scleroderma, a term that literally means "hard skin." Signs of morphea include:

  • Hardeningand thickening of the skin.
  • Discoloration of the affected skin to look lighter or darker than the surrounding area.
  • Oval-shaped patches that may change colors and gradually develop a whitish center.
  • Linear patches, especially when on arms and legs
  • Loss of hair and sweat glands in the affected area over time.

Morphea usually affects only the uppermost layers of your skin (the dermis and the superficial fatty tissue beneath the dermis). In some cases, morphea may involve the deeper fatty tissue or the connective tissue (fascia or muscle) below your skin. The condition generally lasts several years and then disappears on its own. However, it usually leaves patches of darkened or discolored skin.

When to see a doctor

If you notice patches of discoloring, hardening or thickening skin, see your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment may help slow the development of new patches, and allow your doctor to identify and treat complications before they worsen.

The exact cause of morphea is unknown, though doctors do know it's not contagious. It's believed that an unusual reaction of the immune system plays a role in the development of this condition.

The onset of morphea may be related to:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Repeated trauma to the affected area
  • A recent infection, such as measles or chickenpox

Because the cause of morphea is unknown, it's difficult to pinpoint who may be at a higher risk. However, there are several known factors that may increase your risk of developing morphea, including:

  • Sex. Morphea is more common in women than in men.
  • Race. Whites and people of Asian descent are more likely to develop morphea than are blacks.

Morphea can cause a number of complications, including:

  • Self-esteem issues. Morphea can have a negative effect on your self-esteem and body image, particularly if discolored patches of skin appear on your arms, legs or face.
  • Movement problems. Morphea that affects the arms and legs can impair joint mobility.
  • Widespread areas of hardened, discolored skin. Numerous new patches of hard, discolored skin may seem to join together, a condition known as generalized morphea.
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