Like the rings of a tree, the bumps, dents, ridges and color of the toe and fingernails tell a story – of your health. Short or long, deep red or neon green, manicured or au natural, our nails not only reflect our personal tastes (think nail polish colors), our lifestyles (ever notice gardeners’ hands?), even our career choices (reflexology or massage anyone?).
Nails help us manipulate small objects with our hands, and protect the soft tissues of our fingers and toes. More importantly, our nails often provide clues of underlying disease or medical conditions requiring attention.
Anatomy of a Nail
Fingernails and toenails are made up of layers of a protein called keratin. Keratin is a live cell found also in the skin and hair.
There are six parts to a nail:
- Nail plate – the visible part. The nail plate sits on the…
- Nail bed, which is protected by the…
- Cuticle – the tissue at the base of the nail plate
- Lunula – half-moon shape at base of nail plate
- Nail folds – skin that outlines and supports the nail on all three sides. Below this layer sits the…
- Matrix – the hidden part of the nail where growth takes place
A normal, healthy nail is flesh-colored or slightly pink; the growth extending past the nail bed (what you regularly clip) is white and evenly shaded.
Bacterial or fungal infection (onychomycosis) is suspected with any of the following symptoms:
- swelling and/or pain at nail site
- cracking or peeling of the nails (especially toenails)
- thickening and discoloration of the nail
The best preventative measures for bacterial or fungal infections are to keep the area clean and dry, and to avoid nail-biting. A visit to a dermatologist, podiatrist or pharmacist would be prudent should an infection occur, since more serious conditions may be at work if these symptoms present suddenly and last for more than a few days.
More Than an Infection
The following conditions are ones you may encounter in your practice and are provided for the purpose of recognition, not diagnosis.
White Spots (punctuate leukonychia). Looking somewhat like a chalky stain, these imperfections can indicate damage to the cuticle. The cuticle acts as a seal, keeping in moisture and blocking out bacteria and drying chemicals (like acetone and formaldehyde-based polish removers). When cuticles are trimmed too aggressively, or are pushed back excessively, and/or cut or picked at consistently, irritants can slip below the surface, compromising the nail-growth process.
Split Nails can result from over exposure to water and chemicals, which weaken nails.
Rough White Patches. The nail plate looks white and appears “roughed up”. These keratin granulations can form from wearing polish for too long and/or using drying polish removers three or more times/week.
A referral to a dermatologist or podiatrist for consultation is warranted if any of the following are observed.
- pink, red and/or purple lines beneath the nail plate. These fine lines are usually signs of splinter hemorrhages, caused by trauma to the matrix, medications or a systemic disease
- unusual nail color, ie. completely white, half-white/half-pink, pale, blush at base of nail – may indicate problems with the liver, pancreas or kidneys
- red nail beds – may be pointing to heart disease
- horizontal or vertical lines – can be warning signs of malnutrition or more serious conditions
- painful lumps at the matrix or under the surface of the nail may be pointing to the growth of a wart or tumor
- unusually-shaped nails, ie. clubbed nails (domed, large, broad) or spoon nails (concave, weak structure). These may be caused by severe fungal infection, or respiratory or congenital heart issues.
Please keep in mind that it is outside the legal scope of our practices as reflexologists to diagnose any of the above conditions. Should you notice any irregularities recommend that your client get it checked out by a medical professional.
Next post I’ll talk about simple ways to take care of our nails. Stay tuned!