Psychocutaneous Medicine

Vitiligo Disease Triggers: Psychological Stressors Preceding the Onset of Disease

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References

Missing values were encountered because some participants did not respond to all the questionnaire items. A complete case analysis was performed (ie, missing values were ignored throughout the study). Data imputation was considered by multiple imputations; however, there were few or no differences between the estimates from the 2 approaches. Therefore, final models did not involve data imputation.

The statistical significance for all estimates was considered to be P<.05. However, a P value near .05 should be interpreted with caution given the multiple dependent tests performed in this study with increased risk for falsely rejecting the null hypothesis.

Results

Survey Population Characteristics

One thousand seven hundred participants started the survey; 1632 completed the survey (96.0% completion rate) and 1553 had been diagnosed with vitiligo by a physician. Twelve participants were excluded because they were younger than 18 years, leaving 1541 evaluable participants. Five hundred thirty-eight participants (34.9%) had comorbid autoimmune disorders. Demographics and disease phenotypes of the study participants are listed in Table 1.

Stressors Preceding Vitiligo Onset

Eight hundred twenty-one participants (56.6%) experienced at least one death or stressor within 2 years prior to vitiligo onset (Table 2), including death of a loved one (16.6%) and stressful life events (51.0%) within the 2 years prior to the onset of vitiligo, especially work/financial problems (10.8%), end of a long-term relationship (10.2%), and family problems (not otherwise specified)(7.8%). Two hundred (13.5%) participants reported experiencing 1 death and 46 (3.1%) reported multiple deaths. Five hundred participants (33.6%) reported experiencing 1 stressor and 259 (17.4%) reported multiple stressors.

Stressors Not Associated With Vitiligo Extent

The number of deaths or stressors reported per participant within the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset were not associated with BSA, laterality, or distribution of lesions (Table 3 and eTable 2–eTable 4).

Symptoms Associated With Vitiligo

Five hundred twenty-two participants (34.5%) reported intermittent abdominal cramping, including premenstrual and/or menstrual cramping in women (9.7%), food-related abdominal cramping (4.4%), inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS)(2.6%), anxiety-related abdominal cramping (1.5%), autoimmune gastrointestinal disorders (1.2%), and “other” etiologies (20.4%). Five hundred ten participants reported itching and/or burning associated with vitiligo lesions (35.1%).

Intermittent abdominal cramping overall was associated with a BSA greater than 75% (OR, 1.65; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.17-2.32; P=.004). However, specific etiologies of abdominal cramping were not significantly associated with BSA (P≥.11). In contrast, itching and/or burning from vitiligo lesions was associated with a BSA greater than 25% (OR, 1.53; 95% CI, 1.23-1.90; P<.0001).

Association Between Number of Stressors and Symptoms in Vitiligo

A history of multiple stressors (≥2) within the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset was associated with intermittent abdominal cramping overall (OR, 1.84; 95% CI, 1.38-2.47; P<.0001), including premenstrual and/or menstrual cramping in women (OR, 1.84; 95% CI, 1.15-2.95; P=.01), IBS (OR, 3.29; 95% CI, 1.34-8.05; P=.01), and autoimmune gastrointestinal disorders (OR, 4.02; 95% CI, 1.27-12.80; P=.02)(eTable 5). These associations remained significant in multivariate models that included age, sex, and BSA as covariates. However, a history of 1 stressor or death or multiple deaths in the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset was not associated with any etiology of abdominal cramping.

Experiencing 1 (OR, 1.43; 95% CI, 1.12-1.82; P=.005) or multiple stressors (OR, 1.51; 95% CI, 1.12-2.04; P=.007) also was associated with itching and/or burning secondary to vitiligo. This association remained significant in a multivariate model that included age, sex, and BSA as covariates. However, a history of 1 or multiple deaths in the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset was not associated with itching and/or burning.

Association Between Specific Stressors and Vitiligo Symptoms

Perimenstrual (premenstrual and/or menstrual) cramping in women was associated with family problems (not otherwise specified) within the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset (Table 4). Food-related abdominal cramping was associated with school- and/or test-related stressors. Diagnosis of IBS was associated with health problems or surgery and being a victim of abuse within the 2 years prior to onset of vitiligo. Autoimmune gastrointestinal disorders were associated with moving to a new home/region, health problems or surgery, and witness to a violent crime or death. Finally, itching and/or burning of vitiligo lesions was associated with work and financial problems.

Comment

The present study found a high frequency of stressful life events and deaths of loved ones occurring within the 2 years preceding vitiligo onset. A history of multiple stressors but not deaths of loved ones was associated with more frequent symptoms in vitiligo patients, including itching and/or burning and intermittent abdominal pain. Specific stressors were associated with intermittent abdominal cramping, which occurred in approximately one-third of vitiligo patients. Abdominal cramping was related to menses in women, anxiety, foods, IBS, autoimmune gastrointestinal disorders, and other etiologies of abdominal cramping, which underscores the complex relationship between stressors, vitiligo, and inflammation. It is possible that stress-related immune abnormalities occur in vitiligo, which may influence the development of other autoimmune disorders. Alternatively, abdominal symptoms may precede and perhaps contribute to psychological stressors and impaired quality of life in vitiligo patients; however, the cross-sectional nature of the study did not allow us to elucidate this temporal relationship.

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