Fitness Q&A by Richard Weil
Stretch marks occur when the elastic middle layer of skin called the dermis is stretched. Stretching leads to a breakdown of connective tissue, inflammation, and then scar formation as the injury heals. It's the scarring that causes stretch marks to appear. Stretch marks are common during puberty and rapid growth spurts in adolescence (they typically heal by the late teens or early 20s), pregnancy, excessive weight gain and obesity, when muscle mass increases rapidly and stretches the skin (like during bodybuilding), and sometimes when individuals use topical or high doses of ingested steroids for many weeks or months. Stretch marks are not a health risk but can be cosmetically unappealing.
As for prevention, lotions and creams are largely ineffective and costly (although some of the tanning creams may cover up stretch marks but not heal them), and there isn't any medication that you can take to prevent or remove them either. However, if your stretch marks are from rapid increases in muscle mass due to weight lifting as you report in your question (your doctor can help assess what they're from if you're not sure), then you ought to try reducing the intensity of your workouts in the areas of your body that are affected to prevent muscle mass from increasing quickly. You report that your arms are affected, and so you might try reducing the weight during biceps curls, triceps press-downs and kickbacks, and any other exercise that works the muscle under the skin where the stretch marks appear. There's no guarantee that this will work, but it's worth a try. Reducing body fat may also be helpful since stretch marks tend to appear more in fatty areas of the body (abdomen, upper arms, thighs, and buttocks), but again, you won't know if it works until you try.
Stretch marks tend to fade over time, but it's a wait-and-see game as to how much. If reducing the intensity of your training doesn't work and they continue to upset you even after they diminish, then you might consider a consult with a dermatologist to discuss surgical, laser, and other possible treatments. Your primary care physician can make the appropriate referral.
Take care. Thank you for your question.
Last Editorial Review: 1/10/2007