Modern Medicine: Stop biting your nails!


When you were a youngster your mother would tell you to stop biting your nails. Correct? You had no idea why you shouldn’t bite your nails, but in those days you obeyed your parents.

Since you are not supple enough, you never bit your toe nails but got used to toe nail clippers instead. However, looking after your nails, finger or toe, is a chore. Not only do they grow at an amazing rate (and even continue to grow after you die), but they do have an important function.

Remember the time you fell over and ripped off the nail on your big toe. Painful! And then it grew back and became ingrown and you needed an operation to correct it. Nails are more than a nuisance chore – they can be a real problem!

The first important reason for nails, is they protect the very end of your fingers and toes (they are the bits you drop bricks on, squash in car doors, hit with hammers, etc.) and the nails actually help in your sense of fine touch. This is without even considering them the fashion accessory they are today. Without them, the sales of nail polish would grind to a halt and thousands of young ladies would have nothing to do!

Nails are also, in many instances, the mirror of your soul – well, the mirror of your inner health if nothing else. There are so many ailments that can show themselves in the nails it is quite fantastic.

Small pinhead sized pitting can be seen in Psoriasis, as well as separation of the nail from the nail bed, which we call Onycholysis. Eczema can cause larger pitting and ridging of the nails. There is another interesting condition called Lichen Planus that can cause longitudinal ridges to occur in the nails. You can see longitudinal red and white streaks in the nail bed and V shaped notches of the ends of the nails in a condition called Darier’s disease, a follicular skin condition.

The nails are also adversely affected by temporary ailments that can give rise to transverse ridges across the nails, called Beau’s lines. You can also get “clubbed” nails, with them bent over the end of the digit. This is often caused by cigarette smoking (just another reason to give up smoking). The reverse, which is spoon shaped nails, is seen in iron deficiency anemia.

Looking at the half moons (medical name the lanulae) you can get red ones in congestive cardiac failure, azure ones in Hepatolenticular degeneration and white ones with Cirrhosis of the liver. The whole nail can turn yellow with lymphedema and you may get white stripes with Arsenic poisoning. Are you sure the arsenic bottle under the sink is for rat catching?

If that is not enough, there are various conditions that affect the nail directly. Paronychia, that painful infected swelling alongside the nail is associated with nail biting (yes, we have a word for it – Onychophagia), while many fungal infections will cause discoloration and splitting of the nail from the nail bed. My favorite nail condition has to be Onychogryphosis, now that’s a name and a half, where the nails (especially toe nails) become so thick and horned that you need special cutters to attack them. You often see this with the elderly. Lots of interesting conditions lie in store for you when you get older.

So there you are, nails are a study all to themselves. Nail specialists do exist – and they are not nice ladies on the beach with several bottles of nail polish! If your nails begin to change, perhaps it is time for a medical checkup to see which particular Onycho-something you’ve got.