Long-term effects of self-harm

If you’ve been self-harming for a while, it can seriously impact your quality of life. The Mix explains the long term effects of self-harm and how you can get help.

Two young people standing in a pretty natural setting with their arms around each other

(T/w) This article includes specific references to acts and effects of self-harm.

Self-harm – where you intentionally injure yourself – can come in many forms, such as cutting or burning. Whatever form your self-harming takes, they have one thing in common; they’re likely to have a long term effect on your life. It’s important to understand the long-term effects of self-harm and the toll it can take on your body.

Some people self-harm as a short term release to deal with complicated emotions, for example if they’re being bullied or experiencing anxiety or depression. But if this self-harm continues over a prolonged period of time, then it can have a big impact on your life for years afterwards, even after you’ve stopped hurting yourself.

Read more about why people self-harm

What are the long-term effects of cutting yourself?

Cutting your skin can have some very serious consequences – especially if the cuts have been deep and on sensitive areas of your body. One of the most obvious effects of self-harm is that the cuts can lead to permanent scarring. Hamish Laing of the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS) explains that scarring can’t be fixed once it’s there, and that cutting your skin can have more serious consequences:

“If you are cutting your wrist, you’re not very far away from the mechanics of the inside of your arm,” says Hamish. “We see lots of people who have injured tendons, nerves, blood vessels and muscles. And although some of these can be repaired, if you cut a major nerve in your wrist you can be left with permanent weakness or numbness in your hand, or both. It’s a very significant injury.”

Nerve damage can be quite common in people who’ve self-harmed long term – something that 20-year-old Lara experienced: “I self-harmed for five years, usually cutting around once a week. Eventually, I’d cut so much that I was starting to lose feeling in my left wrist and, over a period of a few months, I completely lost feeling from my elbow down to my hand.”

When people think of self-harm, cutting is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind. This is because the effects of self-harming this way are visible, in ways that some other forms of self-harm aren’t.

How can I reduce the long-term effects of cutting?

When it comes to limiting the physical impact that self-harm can have on your body, Hamish says that prevention is always better than cure – but that there are steps you can take if you are going to cut that can help reduce the long-term effects:

  • The first is to avoid cutting yourself too deeply in the first place
  • Secondly, get help so that wounds won’t become infected, as that always makes scarring worse
  • Finally, don’t make cuts all over your body; cuts limited to a small area will mean smaller wounds and less scarring

What are the long-term effects of burning?

Self-harm doesn’t always involve cutting – sometimes, you might be burning yourself instead. If you are burning your skin to self-harm, you could be risking severe damage to your skin and are likely to have permanent scarring.

“Burning yourself with a cigarette will leave you with a small – rather painful – scar, but not really any long-term consequences,” says Hamish. However, he warns about using chemicals or acids: “These can cause massive destruction and people can even lose limbs. Potentially it can be life threatening.”

What are the long-term effects of head banging?

Another method of self-harm is head banging, which is exactly as it sounds. It’s where you repeatedly bang your head against a wall, floor or another object, and doing so over a long period of time could do long-term damage because of how fragile your head and brain are.

While it might feel that head banging for self harm isn’t as serious as cutting yourself or overdosing might be, the real danger with it is that the impact it’s having on your health is hidden – and the effects of self-harm this way can be devastating.

In fact, repeated blunt force trauma to the head can be so dangerous that in 2002 a coroner ruled that Jeff Astle, a former England World Cup player, died from a brain disease that was caused by constantly heading footballs.

What are the long-term effects of overdosing?

In extreme cases, you might be tempted to take an overdose to cope with your urge to self-harm. But aside from the immediately dangerous impact that taking an overdose can have, repeated use of any drugs can do some long-lasting damage to your body;

“An overdose of any drug is not healthy for your body, and the effects will vary depending on what you took, and the quantity,” says Dr Gemma Newman, a GP based in west London. “The main organs affected by paracetamol overdoses are your liver and kidneys. Assuming the initial effects are treated, there is then a chance that long-term organ damage can occur.

“The main thing to do is get yourself checked out as soon as possible following an overdose – usually in A&E. For long-term follow-up and advice, your GP, or possibly a specialist, should be involved to help you.”

Find out more about going to A&E for self-harm

Alternatives to self-harm

Of course, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t feel the impulse to self-harm at all. But if you can’t make the feeling go away, there are a few techniques you could try instead of cutting yourself.

  • The ice-cube technique – this is where you place an ice cube in the crook of your arm or knee, and allow the sting of the cold ice to act as a way of feeling a release. This method has worked for Lara. “The ice cube gives me a buzz similar to cutting and can be safer,” she explains.
  • The elastic band technique – if you’re feeling the urge to cut yourself, you could try placing an elastic band on your wrist, arms or legs and flick them against your skin for short term, less dangerous relief.

Getting self-harm support

If you’re worried that your self-harming may lead to some of these longer-term effects, now might be a good time to try and take some steps towards recovery. It can feel scary to take the first steps towards stopping self-harm, but you can move at your own pace to slowly get better over time. Some examples of things you could try to stop hurting yourself are:

Knowing that someone is there to support you through a difficult time can be a real comfort. If you don’t have anyone you feel you can talk to about harming yourself, you can get in touch with our trained team for advice. Mind also has an extensive list of helplines you can contact if you need help with your self-harm.

Next Steps



By Holly Turner

Updated on 27-Mar-2021

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