Standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror may be the sort of thing only the vain or uninhibited are brave enough to do.
But taking off your clothes and carefully studying your reflection could be good for you, helping you spot early signs of a health problem. Here , with the help of leading experts, we look at what your naked body may be trying to tell you.
This could be a sign of a hernia, when part of the body pushes through a weakness in the muscle or surrounding tissue, producing an externally visible lump.
The most common form is an inguinal hernia which is caused by a part of the bowel pushing through the groin wall.
‘You may only see the resulting lump when you’re standing up because gravity and abdominal pressure will make it protrude,’ says Dr Anton Emmanuel, a consultant gastroenterologist at University College London Hospitals. ‘It will, in effect, disappear when lying down.’ Inguinal hernias are most common in men, sometimes as a result of heavy lifting. The problem may require an operation to push the protruding part back into place. The weakness in the muscle wall is then surgically closed.
Known as acanthosis nigricans, these darkened, thickened patches of skin can be an early sign of type 2 diabetes, says Dr Nida Chammas, a consultant diabetes endocrinologist at the BMI Clementine Churchill Hospital,Middlesex.
Typically a hand span in size, the patches tend to be dry with a slightly rough feel (a bit like velvet) and may also itch.
‘They are linked to obesity, which, in turn, can cause insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes when the body is unable to properly use the hormone insulin to regulate blood sugar levels and so the pancreas tries to produce more and more,’ says Dr Chammas.
‘High levels of insulin in the blood are thought to cause changes in skin cells that lead to the formation of these patches.’
Although it’s not clear why, they typically form in folds such as the armpits, neck and groin.
Lifestyle changes such as losing weight, reducing carbohydrate intake and exercising more may help to restore the original skin colour.
To help those whose patches stem from insulin resistance, a GP can prescribe medication, such as metformin, to reduce insulin levels, which can also help reduce the colour of the patches.
If you look face into the mirror and can see you have one shoulder higher than the other — or if you look over your shoulder at your back and see in the mirror that one shoulder blade is more prominent than the other, you could have undiagnosed scoliosis, a twisting or sideways curvature of the spine, explains Professor Tony Kochhar, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the London Bridge Hospital.
‘Traditionally people think of scoliosis as creating an S-shape in the spine,’ he says. ‘But the condition can also affectthe ribs, twisting them and pushing them upwards and outwards which can throw the alignment of theshoulders.’
Strengthening and stretching exercises from a doctor or physiotherapist can improve posture and flexibility, and may help control any back pain. In extreme cases, surgery may help.
Sometimes uneven shoulders can be caused by muscle wastage, which can be the result of the neurological disease multiple sclerosis (MS).
‘MS affects the messages sent by the brain to the muscles,’ says Professor Kochhar. ‘If these don’t get through, it can affect the function of the muscles, which start wasting away, so throwing the alignment of the shoulder.’
However for many people, this would not be the first sign of the disease.
A prominent vein running down the middle of the chest can be a sign of an inflammatory condition known as Mondor’s Disease, says John Scurr, a consultant vascular surgeon at University College Hospital, London.
‘This is due to inflammation of the vein under the skin of the breast or chest wall which can happen arbitrarily or because of injury.’
Mondor’s disease, a rare condition, doesn’t cause breast cancer, but on rare occasions, it can be a sign that there is a tumour in the breast.
Mondor’s disease can resolve itself or it can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs.
Dark, discoloured skin around the ankle bone may be the beginnings of a leg ulcer.
They occur when veins in the leg become weakened, losing their ability to push blood back up toward the heart, explains Eddie Chaloner, a consultant vascular surgeon with Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Foundation Trust.
‘Blood leaks from the veins which have become weakened by a build-up of pressure in the leg,’ he says.
This leakage causes an inflammatory reaction: haemoglobin, the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues, leaks into the area, creating the discolouration.
One theory is that this then affects skin growth or repair, leading to the ulcer.
This can be a sign of heart failure. This is when the heart cannot pump enough blood around the body at the right pressure, explains Dr Glyn Thomas, a consultant cardiologist at the Bristol Heart Institute.
‘This impacts on the veins carrying blood from the head to the heart,’ he says. ‘If there is less force to push it through then blood builds up, causing the veins to bulge.’
This tends to happen in the neck — and sometimes in the leg — as these are furthest away from the heart. Prominent veins are normally present with some other symptoms of heart failure, such as feeling unusually short of breath or having swollen feet and ankles, because if the heart isn’t pumping efficiently, then blood can pool in those places, too.
Causes of heart failure include high blood pressure, as this can damage the heart muscle, and heart attack. It is an increasing problem. In the past 12 months cases in England have risen by 9,000 to 146,000.
Treatment involves medication such as ACE inhibitors or, in some cases, being fitted with a pacemaker.
Frequent unexplained bruises that take a week or more to clear can be a sign of a liver disease such as hepatitis.
‘If the liver is diseased, the number of platelets in the blood can drop,’ says Professor David Lloyd, a consultant liver surgeon at the University Hospital, Leicester.
‘As platelets are needed to clot the blood, a reduced number can result in internal bleeding, which causes thebruising.’
Bruising can also be a sign of leukaemia as the blood cancer also causes a drop in platelets. Always report any unusual bruising to your doctor.
A fleshy lump in the knee could be a precursor to gout — a type of arthritis affecting two in 100 people in the UK which leads to painful swelling of the joints.
Gout is caused by uric acid, a naturally occurring chemical in the body, forming small crystals in and around the joints.
These crystals can also build up under skin, leading to small white or yellow lumps known as tophi, says Kailash Desai, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at West Middlesex Hospital.
These visible lumps could appear around other joints such as the foot, but are most noticeable around the knee. Untreated, they can grow to the size of a golf ball and damage the bone.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help fight pain and inflammation in an actual gout attack. Medication called urate-lowering therapy can reduce uric acid levels and may then reduce the lumps.
Taking regular exercise and avoiding foods containing high levels of purine (the chemical involved in the production of uric acid), such as red meat, offal, oily fish, seafood and foods containing yeast extract may also reduce gout attacks.
Most moles are harmless clumps of cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment in skin. But in rare cases they can be a melanoma — an aggressive form of skin cancer, of which there are 14,000 cases diagnosed in the UK each year.
Most commonly in women they form on the lower leg, while in men they are most common on the back — which is why you need to check yourself in the mirror or you may miss them. According to Dr John Ashworth, a consultant dermatologist with Bridgewater Community Healthcare NHS Trust, melanomas have the appearance of very dark moles or look pale with a darker spot on them that slowly gets larger.
‘Also be aware if you spot a mole where there wasn’t one before, or a pre-existing mole that changes size, shape or colour and bleeds,’ he warns. This is because it is possible for moles you were born with to become cancerous.
‘And watch out for any moles with an uneven or ragged edge as moles are usually circular or oval with a smooth border,’ he adds.
Swelling of one or both thighs can be a symptom of testicular cancer, says Professor Christopher Eden, a consultant urologist at The Royal Surrey County Hospital inGuildford.
‘Testicular cancer can spread to the lymph nodes in the pelvis which in turn affects the lymphatic system in this area, a drainage system that helps the body get rid of excess fluid and waste products.
‘As a result, fluid builds up around the upper thigh,’ he says. This is different from peripheral arterial disease, where fatty deposits block the leg arteries, where the swelling tends to be in the calf area.
Another sign of testicular cancer is when one testicle appears to be lower than the other.
‘This is caused by the weight of the tumour pulling the testicle down,’ adds Professor Eden.
A severely itchy red, blistering rash could be a sign of gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, says Parveen Kumar, a consultant gastroenterologist at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry. Gluten is the protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley.
‘This rash is known as dermatitis herpetiformis, and usually appears on the elbows but can appear on the trunk and knees,’ he says. It affects around 10 per cent of people with coeliac disease, a condition where the immune system reacts to gluten by damaging the lining of the small intestine.
‘Switching to a gluten-free diet can help clear it up,’ says Professor Kumar.
In some cases, a medication called dapsone is prescribed while steroid cream may reduce the itch.
Unusual dimpling on the surface of the breast may be a sign of breastcancer.
‘When a cancer forms in the breast, the tumour cells cause the surrounding tissue to form collagen — a protein which provides strength and structure to the skin and which is produced by the body as a reaction to change or injury,’ explains Tony Howell, a professor of medical oncology at the University of Manchester.
‘The collagen draws the skin tissue inward which is why it creates this dimpling or orange peel-like effect on the breast.’
Nipple inversion — where the nipple retracts into the breast — is another potential sign, also caused by collagen in the surrounding tissue pulling the nipple in.
Dimpling and nipple inversion can also be due to causes other than cancer — but any changes should be checked by your doctor, adds Professor Howell.
If your reflection shows you are leaning forward and your bottom sticks out, then it’s possible you have early osteoarthritis of thehip.
‘You may not be in pain, but the arthritis may prevent extension of the hip joint so you don’t stand straight,’ says Kailash Desai, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at West Middlesex Hospital. ‘So, without realising it, you may compensate your posture by curving the back and sticking the bottom out.’
Exercise and weight loss may help manage the condition.
Source: Daily Mail