Summer is in full swing, and for those of you residing in the Northern Hemisphere, it is a time that many think about getting a tan and spending time in the sun. Patients that we see at the Center for Brachial Plexus and Traumatic Nerve Injury increasingly express body image related distress during summer months–particularly about scarring and change in limb appearance. In a previous post we discussed ways to help address concerns about body image and socialization in the warmer months. Today, we will take a closer look at coping with the impact of scarring following a brachial plexus injury.
Remember that scars are a natural part of the wound healing process. Scar tissue looks and feels differently than the tissue it replaces due to its structure, lack of sweat glands and hair follicles. In order to cope with the associated emotional distress, many attempt to camouflage scarring through methods such as tanning, wearing seasonally inappropriate clothing, or applying make-up that covers their scars. Some patients report feeling ashamed of how their body looks, hating their appearance or the thought of others seeing their bodies with scars, or feeling more vulnerable to people’s questions or looks in public. These are not uncommon reactions. However, as a result of body-image related fears, shame, beliefs and projections, people often isolate or cease to participate in activities and social situations that actually help reduce emotional distress and symptoms of depression.
To counter these beliefs, it’s important to engage in motivational positive self-talk, which involves:
- Focusing on your strengths
- Banishing thoughts that are body shaming or projections of your fears
- Remembering that healing takes time and that it is a process for everyone
Speaking with a trusted friend, loved one or a mental health professional specializing in body image concerns can also help you develop more resiliency, self-confidence and acceptance of your body as it is healing.
Another important fact to recall is that scar tissue is less resistant to UV radiation and much more prone to sunburn. What’s worse is that prolonged sun exposure has been shown to permanently darken a scar, leaving a more noticeable brown tint even after that summer tan fades. Using a high SPF sun block throughout the year—especially in the summer—will help prevent sun burns and associated hyperpigmentation. Additionally, it’s worthwhile to invest in sun protective clothing such as rashguards, shirts or bathing suits to wear while engaging in outdoor sports covering scars provides the best protection in addition to sunscreen. If your skin has difficulty tolerating sunscreen, speak with your dermatologist about other options to provide you with reliable sun protection for your scar.
How to minimize the appearance of scarring is another common concern. Numerous over-the-counter and prescribed products exist to help reduce scarring. However, always check first with your medical provider and dermatologist before purchasing or applying any product, particularly when your scar is fresh as product ingredients may impact or interfere with healing.
Lastly, there are also times when despite following scar care instructions, the body heals from injuries with a significant amount of scar tissue, which may negatively impact how patients feel about themselves, and at times even impair their functioning. In these cases, it might help to speak with a plastic surgeon that specializes in scar removal or minimization techniques.
As brachial plexus injuries are intricate, we would recommend having your plastic surgeon consult on your case with your brachial plexus injury medical specialist to provide you with the best possible care.
Zoe A. Landers, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker at the Center for Brachial Plexus and Traumatic Nerve Injury (CBPTNI) who evaluates and facilitates treatment for brachial plexus injured patients experiencing psychological and psychosocial stressors following injury. Ms. Landers has actively participated in research with the CBPTNI multidisciplinary team to develop a deeper understanding of the psychosocial and psychological impact of brachial plexus injury. Findings from this research have been presented at major hand and upper extremity orthopedic conferences.