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Skin-picking as a form of self-injurious behavior

Amy Gedeon

Penn State College of Medicine

September 2002



Intentional infliction of bodily injury to oneself, without intent to die

Three types

  1. Severe but infrequent – e.g. amputation; associated with psychosis
  2. Stereotypic – function as self-stimulation; e.g. head-banging
  3. Moderate – episodic and compulsive; e.g. self-cutting, skin picking, and trichotillomania


Clinical Characteristics of Skin Picking

  • Also known as “neurotic excoriation”, “self-inflicted dermatoses”, and
      • “dermatillomania”
  • Most common site is face, but lips, scalp, arms, hands, and legs also affected
  • Fingernails most commonly used, but picking with tweezers, pins, teeth, and other instruments is also described
  • More than half of all individuals who skin pick also report histories of stereotypic behaviors such as body rocking, thumb sucking, knuckle cracking, cheek chewing, and head banging
  • Time spent picking varies from 5 minutes to 12 hours daily
      • Many report increased picking at night, when tired
  • Many affected patients seek dermatology services instead of psychiatric treatment
      • May report sensations such as itching, tingling, burning, or an uncontrollable urge to pick their skin



  • Occurs more often in women than in men
  • Prevalence rate of self-mutilation in US population is 1-2%
  • No published reports of the incidence of skin picking in a psychiatric population


Course of Illness

  • Usually gradual and long-term
  • Mean age of onset reported to be adolescence to early adulthood
  • Uncertain how skin picking is acquired and maintained
  • Many patients report increasing levels of tension prior to skin picking and a sense of relief or satisfaction following the picking, as found in trichotillomania
  • Some patients experience an altered state of consciousness while picking, resembling a dissociative state – report that they do not experience pain while picking


Association with Axis I and Axis II Psychiatric Disorders

  • Skin picking not included in DSM-IV’s impulse-control disorders
  • A symptom of another psychiatric disorder or a syndrome in itself?
  • Skin picking can be related to Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
      • Two studies reported that half of patients with compulsive skin picking met criteria for OCD; another study reported only 2 out of 24 met OCD criteria
      • Often a response to obsessions (i.e. symmetry) and done in a ritualistic manner
  • Can also be related to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)
      • Study of 123 BDD patients – 27% engaged in skin-picking
      • Results from skin preoccupation, camouflaging of perceived defects, and excessive grooming behaviors
      • BDD patients who skin pick were more likely to have personality psychopathology than those who did not
  • Association with Mood Disorders
      • High rate of mood disorders, ranging from 48% to 79%, among skin picking patients has been reported
  • Association with Anxiety Disorder
      • 56% – 65% of skin picking patient suffer from an anxiety disorder
  • Association with Medication/Drugs
      • Use of cocaine, methylphenidate, phenelzine, amphetamine, and anticholinergic drugs may produce tactile sensations which lead to skin picking
      • 38% co-morbidity of substance abuse and skin picking
  • Association with Genetic Disorders
      • Skin picking associated with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, Prader Willi syndrome, or mental retardation
  • Comorbid personality disorders in skin picking
      • One study found 71% of skin picking patients met criteria for a personality Disorder
      • OCD and Borderline personality disorders most frequent
  • Monosymptomatic hypochondriasis
      • May present as skin picking
      • Now referred to as delusional disorder – patients may cause skin damage in response to imagined parasites


Biological etiology of skin picking

  • Compulsive feather picking in birds and compulsive paw licking in dogs has been documented
  • Administration of amphetamines leads to self-injurious behavior in horses, rats, and dogs


Implication of B-endorphins

  • Lack of pain during picking episodes may be related to opioid dysregulation
  • Study by Gillberg, et al, demonstrated elevated levels of B-endorphin in CSF of patients with self-injurious behavior
  • But why the dysregulation of opioid regulatory system in some patients?
  • Pain leads to release of B-endorphins
      • Kirkmayer and Carrol’s theory suggests that victims of childhood physical abuse may have elevated levels of B-endorphin in CSF because of repeated exposure to pain, or from being prohibited to reacting physically to the infliction of pain
      • Self-injury stimulates release of endorphins – leads to release of tension
        • Is reinforcing and leads to maintenance of self-injurious behavior


Psychological Theories of Skin Picking

  • Suyemoto’s theory of Ambivalence – Patient’s ambivalence of the desire for life or death
      • Skin picking allows the patient to alleviate feelings of guilt by sacrificing a body part while allowing themselves to live
  • Skin picking as a sequelae of childhood abuse
      • Abuse results in self-hatred or self-directed anger.         Picking may be used as a coping mechanism for dealing with emotional pain (i.e. physical pain distracts the individual).
      • Child learns that self-injurious behavior is reinforcing through family modeling of abuse, where pain is linked to caring or control. Thus, self-harm behavior is reinforced by the environment.



  • SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – reported to have good results
  • Double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the SSRI fluoxetine found significant improvement at doses of 20 mg/day (non-responders increased to 40 mg/day and eventually 60 mg/day)
  • SSRI’s also effective in treating skin picking in Prader Willi Syndrome
  • Psychological treatments – very little published regarding cognitive and behavioral therapy, although they may be helpful



  • Much variability occurs in terms of frequency, length, and triggers of skin picking
  • Barriers to reaching conclusions include small sample sizes and convenience sampling
  • More research needed to determine prevalence of skin picking among various diagnostic categories



    1. Neziroglu, Fugen: Mancebo, Maria.       Skin picking as a form of self-injurious behavior.         Psychiatric Annals. 2001; 31(9): 549-55.
    1. Bloch, et al.   Fluoxetine in Pathologic Skin-Picking. Psychosomatics.       2001; 42(4): 314-19.
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