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. Over time the patches may become hard, dry and smooth. Morphea tends to affect only the outer layers of your skin. But some forms of the condition also affect deeper tissues and may 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 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 but sometimes involves bone as well. The condition generally lasts several years and then disappears by itself. It may leave scars or areas 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 cause of morphea is unknown. Some experts think it is caused by an infection, but that theory has not been proved. The condition isn't contagious.

Risk factors

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

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

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 but permanent eye damage.

Sept. 21, 2018
References
  1. AskMayoExpert. Morphea. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2018.
  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. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. Accessed July 30, 2015.
  3. Ravelli NF, et al. Interventions for morphea. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://www.thecochranelibrary.com. Accessed July 12, 2018.
  4. Valančienė G, et al. Pathogenesis and treatment modalities of localized scleroderma. Medicina (Kaunas). 2010;46:649.