- Describe the effect of injury to the skin
Because the skin is the part of our bodies that meets the world most directly, it is especially vulnerable to injury. Injuries include burns and wounds, as well as scars and calluses. They can be caused by sharp objects, heat, or excessive pressure or friction to the skin.
Skin injuries set off a healing process that occurs in several overlapping stages. The first step to repairing damaged skin is the formation of a blood clot that helps stop the flow of blood and scabs over with time. Many different types of cells are involved in wound repair, especially if the surface area that needs repair is extensive. Before the basal stem cells of the stratum basale can recreate the epidermis, fibroblasts mobilize and divide rapidly to repair the damaged tissue by collagen deposition, forming granulation tissue. Blood capillaries follow the fibroblasts and help increase blood circulation and oxygen supply to the area. Immune cells, such as macrophages, roam the area and engulf any foreign matter to reduce the chance of infection.
A burn results when the skin is damaged by intense heat, radiation, electricity, or chemicals. The damage results in the death of skin cells, which can lead to a massive loss of fluid. Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and renal and circulatory failure follow, which can be fatal. Burn patients are treated with intravenous fluids to offset dehydration, as well as intravenous nutrients that enable the body to repair tissues and replace lost proteins. Another serious threat to the lives of burn patients is infection. Burned skin is extremely susceptible to bacteria and other pathogens, due to the loss of protection by intact layers of skin.
Burns are sometimes measured in terms of the size of the total surface area affected. This is referred to as the “rule of nines,” which associates specific anatomical areas with a percentage that is a factor of nine (Figure 1).
Burns are also classified by the degree of their severity:
- A first-degree burn is a superficial burn that affects only the epidermis. Although the skin may be painful and swollen, these burns typically heal on their own within a few days. Mild sunburn fits into the category of a first-degree burn.
- A second-degree burn goes deeper and affects both the epidermis and a portion of the dermis. These burns result in swelling and a painful blistering of the skin. It is important to keep the burn site clean and sterile to prevent infection. If this is done, the burn will heal within several weeks.
- A third-degree burn fully extends into the epidermis and dermis, destroying the tissue and affecting the nerve endings and sensory function. These are serious burns that may appear white, red, or black; they require medical attention and will heal slowly without it.
- A fourth-degree burn is even more severe, affecting the underlying muscle and bone.
Oddly, third and fourth-degree burns are usually not as painful because the nerve endings themselves are damaged. Full-thickness burns cannot be repaired by the body, because the local tissues used for repair are damaged and require excision (debridement), or amputation in severe cases, followed by grafting of the skin from an unaffected part of the body, or from skin grown in tissue culture for grafting purposes.
Skin grafts are required when the damage from trauma or infection cannot be closed with sutures or staples. Please note, the following video is an educational video of skin grafting that some viewers may find difficult to watch as it is graphic in nature. Watch this video to learn more about skin grafting procedures.
Scars and Keloids
Most cuts or wounds, with the exception of ones that only scratch the surface (the epidermis), lead to scar formation. A scar is collagen-rich skin formed after the process of wound healing that differs from normal skin. Scarring occurs in cases in which there is repair of skin damage, but the skin fails to regenerate the original skin structure. Fibroblasts generate scar tissue in the form of collagen, and the bulk of repair is due to the basket-weave pattern generated by collagen fibers and does not result in regeneration of the typical cellular structure of skin. Instead, the tissue is fibrous in nature and does not allow for the regeneration of accessory structures, such as hair follicles, sweat glands, or sebaceous glands.
Sometimes, there is an overproduction of scar tissue, because the process of collagen formation does not stop when the wound is healed; this results in the formation of a raised or hypertrophic scar called a keloid. In contrast, scars that result from acne and chickenpox have a sunken appearance and are called atrophic scars.
Scarring of skin after wound healing is a natural process and does not need to be treated further. Application of mineral oil and lotions may reduce the formation of scar tissue. However, modern cosmetic procedures, such as dermabrasion, laser treatments, and filler injections have been invented as remedies for severe scarring. All of these procedures try to reorganize the structure of the epidermis and underlying collagen tissue to make it look more natural.
Why do scars look different from surrounding skin?
Bedsores and Stretch Marks
Skin and its underlying tissue can be affected by excessive pressure. One example of this is called a bedsore. Bedsores, also called decubitis ulcers, are caused by constant, long-term, unrelieved pressure on certain body parts that are bony, reducing blood flow to the area and leading to necrosis (tissue death). Bedsores are most common in elderly patients who have debilitating conditions that cause them to be immobile. Most hospitals and long-term care facilities have the practice of turning the patients every few hours to prevent the incidence of bedsores. If left untreated by removal of necrotized tissue, bedsores can be fatal if they become infected.
The skin can also be affected by pressure associated with rapid growth. A stretch mark results when the dermis is stretched beyond its limits of elasticity, as the skin stretches to accommodate the excess pressure. Stretch marks usually accompany rapid weight gain during puberty and pregnancy. They initially have a reddish hue, but lighten over time. Other than for cosmetic reasons, treatment of stretch marks is not required. They occur most commonly over the hips and abdomen.
When you wear shoes that do not fit well and are a constant source of abrasion on your toes, you tend to form a callus at the point of contact. This occurs because the basal stem cells in the stratum basale are triggered to divide more often to increase the thickness of the skin at the point of abrasion to protect the rest of the body from further damage. This is an example of a minor or local injury, and the skin manages to react and treat the problem independent of the rest of the body. Calluses can also form on your fingers if they are subject to constant mechanical stress, such as long periods of writing, playing string instruments, or video games. A corn is a specialized form of callus. Corns form from abrasions on the skin that result from an elliptical-type motion.