Overview

Morphea (mor-FEE-uh) is a rare skin condition that causes painless, discolored patches on your skin.

Typically, the skin changes appear on the abdomen, chest or back. But they might also appear on your face, arms or legs. Morphea tends to affect only the outermost layers of your skin. But some forms of the condition also restrict movement in the joints.

Morphea usually subsides on its own over time, though recurrences are common. In the meantime, medications and therapies are available to help treat the skin discoloration and other effects.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of morphea vary, depending on the type and stage of the condition. They include:

  • Reddish or purplish oval patches of skin, often on the abdomen, chest or back
  • Patches that gradually develop a lighter or whitish center
  • Linear patches, especially when on the arms or legs
  • A gradual change in the affected skin, which becomes hard, thickened, dry and shiny
  • Loss of hair and sweat glands in the affected area over time

Morphea usually affects only the skin and underlying tissue and, rarely, bone. The condition generally lasts several years and then disappears on its own. But it usually leaves some patches of darkened or discolored skin.

When to see a doctor

If you notice reddish patches of 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.

Causes

The causes of morphea are unknown. It may be due in part to an unusual reaction of the immune system. Or it may be triggered by:

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

The condition isn't contagious.

Risk factors

Certain factors may affect your risk of developing morphea, including:

  • Your sex and age. Females are more likely to develop morphea than are males. The condition can affect people at any age. It usually appears between the ages of 2 and 14 or in the mid-40s.
  • Your race. Morphea is more prevalent among Caucasians.

Complications

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 or 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.
  • Eye damage. Children with head and neck morphea may experience unnoticeable, permanent eye damage.
Sept. 29, 2015
References
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  2. Goldsmith LA, et al., eds. Morphea. In: Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine. 8th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2012.
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  4. Tolkachjov SN, et al. Progressive hemifacial atrophy: A review. Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases. 2015;10:39.
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