Psychocutaneous Medicine

Vitiligo Disease Triggers: Psychological Stressors Preceding the Onset of Disease

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Vitiligo is the loss of skin pigmentation caused by autoimmune destruction of melanocytes. Little is known about the impact of psychological stressors preceding vitiligo onset on symptoms associated with vitiligo and the extent of disease. We performed a questionnaire-based study of 1541 adults with vitiligo to evaluate the impact of psychological stressors in this patient population. Psychological stressors should be considered as potential disease triggers in vitiligo patients, and screening of vitiligo patients for psychological stressors and associated symptoms should be included in routine assessment.

Practice Points

  • Psychological stressors (eg, loss of a loved one) that occurred within 2 years prior to vitiligo onset should be considered as potential disease triggers.
  • Psychological stressors have been associated with symptoms of abdominal cramping and itching/burning in vitiligo patients but not disease extent or distribution.


 

References

Vitiligo is the loss of skin pigmentation caused by autoimmune destruction of melanocytes. Multiple pathogenic factors for vitiligo have been described, including CD8+ T lymphocyte/T helper 1 infiltrates in lesional skin1,2 with increased expression of IFN-γ3 and tumor necrosis factor α,3-6 decreased transforming growth factor β,7 and circulating autoantibodies against tyrosine hydroxylase.8 Additionally, several studies have found a high prevalence of antecedent psychological stressors in vitiligo patients, suggesting that specific stressors may trigger and/or exacerbate vitiligo.9-12

The relationship between antecedent psychological stressors and vitiligo extent has not been well studied. Potential mechanisms for stress-triggered vitiligo include increased catecholamines13 and neuropeptides,14 which have been found in vitiligo patients. However, the complex relationship between stressors and subsequent vitiligo is not well defined. We hypothesized that persistent stressors are associated with increased vitiligo extent.

Vitiligo is classically considered to be a silent pigmentary disorder with few or no symptoms. Prior studies have demonstrated that one-third of vitiligo patients report skin symptoms (eg, pruritus, burning), which may be specifically associated with early-onset disease.15-17 Further, we observed that some vitiligo patients report abdominal cramping associated with their disease. Few studies have described the burden of skin symptoms and other associated symptoms in vitiligo or their determinants.

We conducted a prospective questionnaire-based study of 1541 adult vitiligo patients to identify psychological factors that may precede vitiligo onset. We hypothesized that some types of stressors that occur within 2 years prior to disease onset would have specific associations with vitiligo and/or somatic symptoms.

Methods

Study Population and Questionnaire Distribution

This prospective questionnaire-based study was approved by the institutional review board at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center (now Mount Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt) (New York, New York) for adults (>18 years; male or female) with vitiligo. The survey was validated in paper format at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center and distributed online to members of nonprofit support groups for vitiligo vulgaris, as previously described.15

Questionnaire

The a priori aim of this questionnaire was to identify psychological factors that may precede vitiligo onset. The questionnaire consisted of 77 items (55 closed questions and 22 open questions) pertaining to participant demographics/vitiligo phenotype and psychological stressors preceding vitiligo onset. The questions related to this study and response rates are listed in eTable 1. Responses were verified by screening for noninteger or implausible values (eg, <0 or >100 years of age).

Sample Size

The primary outcome used for sample size calculation was the potential association between vitiligo and the presence of antecedent psychological stressors. Using a 2-tailed test, we determined that a sample size of 1264 participants would have 90% power at α=.05 and a baseline proportion of 0.01 (1% presumed prevalence of vitiligo) to detect an odds ratio (OR) of 2.5 or higher.18

Data and Statistical Analysis

Closed question responses were analyzed using descriptive statistics. Open-ended question responses were analyzed using content analysis. Related comments were coded and grouped, with similarities and differences noted. All data processing and statistics were done with SAS version 9.2. Age at diagnosis (years) and number of anatomic sites affected were divided into tertiles for statistical analysis due to wide skewing.

Logistic regression models were constructed with numbers of reported deaths or stressors per participant within the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset as independent variables (0, 1, or ≥2), and symptoms associated with vitiligo as dependent variables. Adjusted ORs were calculated from multivariate models that included sex, current age (continuous), and comorbid autoimmune disease (binary) as covariates. Linear interaction terms were tested and were included in final models if statistically significant (P<.05).

Ordinal logistic regression was used to analyze the relationship between stressors (and other independent variables) and number of anatomic sites affected with vitiligo (tertiles). Ordinal logistic regression models were constructed to examine the impact of psychological stressors on pruritus secondary to vitiligo (not relevant combined with not at all, a little, a lot, very much) as the dependent variable. The proportional odds assumption was met in both models, as judged by score testing (P>.05). Binary logistic regression was used to analyze laterality, body surface area (BSA) greater than 25%, and involvement of the face and/or body with vitiligo lesions (binary).

Binary logistic regression models were constructed with impact of psychological stressors preceding vitiligo onset on comorbid abdominal cramping and specific etiologies as the dependent variables. There were 20 candidate stressors occurring within the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset. Selection methods for predictors were used to identify significant covariates within the context of the other covariates included in the final models. The results of forward, backward, and stepwise approaches were similar, and the stepwise selection output was presented.

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