Scar tissue forms when the body heals from a wound. However, scar tissue is not the same as skin tissue. It is less elastic, which may lead to tightness, limited movement, and pain for some people.
Scar tissue pain can occur years after an injury or surgery. However, there are numerous treatment options that may reduce scar tissue pain.
In this article, we will look at how and why a person may experience scar tissue pain, why it can occur years after an injury, and the available treatment options.
Scar tissue is part of the body’s natural response to damage. The body might grow scar tissue to heal a wound, such as a:
- surgical incision
External scar tissue has a structure different than that of the skin. In scar tissue, collagen proteins grow in a single direction rather than in a multidirectional pattern, as they do in healthy skin. This structure makes scar tissue less elastic, which may cause it to feel tight or to restrict a person’s range of movement.
Scar tissue may also form inside the body. For example, a person may develop scar tissue internally after undergoing knee replacement surgery.
Scar tissue may cause pain in several ways. Sometimes, the pain is due to skin tightness, which may make it more difficult to move freely.
In other cases, scar tissue pain occurs due to nerve damage resulting from the original injury. If the wound was deep and affected nerves or tendons, a person might have long-term symptoms, such as pain or numbness, in the affected area.
Some people experience scar tissue pain as a result of fibrosis, which occurs when the body grows an excessive amount of scar tissue. Fibrosis causes adhesions that may lead to ongoing pain, inflammation, and loss of function of the tissue or joint.
Fibroblasts, which are cells that form during scar tissue growth, are responsible for fibrosis. If the fibroblasts do not clear over time, they cause prolonged inflammation.
Other symptoms associated with scar tissue include itching, swelling, and tenderness or sensitivity.
When a person first sustains an injury, they usually experience pain due to inflammation and damage to the skin. However, this typically improves over time.
When the body creates scar tissue after the injury, though, a person may not experience scar tissue pain until much later.
Scars can take up to 1 year to mature fully and go through four stages of healing. This slow process may explain why some people do not experience scar tissue pain immediately. Initially, the scarring may look minimal, but over 4–6 weeks, the scar may get bigger or become raised, firm, and thick.
Over the next 2–3 months, the scar will become smaller and blend in more with the person’s skin tone. Signs that a scar is mature include the tissue becoming a lighter color, less sensitive, and smoother in texture.
At-home therapies can help a person manage or reduce scar tissue pain, ease swelling, and speed scar healing. Many of these techniques require regular, consistent use to be effective. They include:
- Massage: Massaging a scar in the scar’s direction for at least 10 minutes two times per day may decrease sensitivity. If the scar is in a location that is difficult for a person to reach, a massage therapist can help.
- Exercise programs: A controlled exercise program may help reduce joint stiffness due to scar tissue. The types of exercises that will help depend on the location of the scar. A physical therapist may be able to help someone identify the best approach for them.
- Moisturizer: Applying moisturizers, such as cocoa or shea butter, can keep the skin soft, which sometimes helps lessen the discomfort of scar tissue. Doctors usually recommend avoiding moisturizers that contain perfume or fragrance, as these may irritate the skin.
- Silicone gel: A person can purchase silicone gel sheets or paint-on silicone liquid to promote scar tissue healing. These products will stick to the skin’s surface, even if it is curved. For the best results, people should use silicone gel for 12–24 hours a day for 3–6 months.
- Taping: A person can also try taping or wrapping the scar, which can reduce tension and swelling.
- Vibration: Using vibration devices, such as electronic massagers, may help desensitize nerves, helping reduce pain. However, a person must use this technique on a daily basis for several months to see results.
If a person’s pain does not improve with at-home treatment, they may wish to try one of several medical procedures that can help reduce discomfort.
The best treatment will depend on the scar’s location and age, as well as the person’s symptoms. A person should always discuss the risks and benefits of these treatments with their doctor.
Some medical treatments for scars include:
- Dermabrasion: Dermabrasion is a procedure that involves using a special tool to remove scar tissue and encourage new tissue growth. After dermabrasion treatment, a person may see new tissue growth 5–8 days after the procedure.
- Fat grafting: This procedure involves removing fat from an area on a person’s body, processing the fat, and injecting it underneath a scar. Scientists believe that fat contains stem cells that can help healthy tissue grow. This new growth can help reduce skin tightness, which may lessen pain and itching.
- Laser treatments: Laser treatments involve applying a specialized laser to the skin. The laser penetrates the skin and stimulates collagen production to promote scar healing. Laser therapy will not eliminate a scar, but it can reduce pain and itching and potentially improve a person’s range of motion.
- Scar revision surgery: Sometimes, if scarring is deep and painful, a person may require scar revision surgery. Surgeons usually only perform this procedure on mature or older scars. Often, the scars are on joints or areas where they inhibit a person’s movement. Doctors may perform a skin graft — transplanting healthy skin from another part of the body — during the surgery.
Scar tissue forms after an injury, and it can develop on the skin’s surface or inside the body. For some people, scar tissue may cause pain, tightness, itching, or difficulty moving. Due to the way that scar tissue matures over time, these symptoms may occur years after an injury.
Helping scar tissue mature and heal at home may improve these symptoms. A person can try using massage, moisturizers, and silicone gel, among other at-home treatments. If the pain persists, a doctor may recommend additional treatment, such as fat grafting or scar revision surgery.
If scar tissue impairs a person’s movement or causes severe pain, they should speak to a doctor to discuss their options.