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13 Fundamental Facts About the Anus

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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

The anus might be the most underappreciated part of the body. Its very mention generally causes people to giggle or cringe. Yet without it, you'd be unable to eliminate waste and eventually die. In case your childhood wasn't enough to give you an accurate idea of its location, the anus is essentially the valve that stands between your poop and the toilet. It's considered the last piece of your digestive tract, essentially a two-inch long canal comprised of pelvic floor muscles and sphincters, easy to locate below either your vagina or your scrotum.

1. IT HAS TWO SPHINCTERS …

You may have heard talk of your "anal sphincter," which is not just one, but two valves. The internal sphincter is involuntary, meaning you can't squeeze it open—it's always closed up tight until it's time to poop. You can consciously hold closed the external, voluntary sphincter if you have to go to the bathroom but there's no toilet in sight, and consciously choose to open it when you're ready to poop. Thanks to your pelvic floor muscle, your poop normally doesn't come out when you don't want it to.

2. …AND ONE VERY IMPORTANT ROLE.

"The most important role is to eliminate waste," Rafael Lugo, a colorectal surgeon in Houston, tells Mental Floss. "We don't think much of it, but it's very important because if we don't eliminate waste, we have a [serious] problem." In rare cases, long-term constipation can cause illness and even death.

3. YOU REALLY SHOULD TAKE A LOOK AT IT … FOR YOUR HEALTH.

Since some of the health conditions of the anus don't cause any immediate symptoms you can feel, Lugo recommends you get comfortable looking at your anus from time to time. "We have these taboos in this society about looking at our bodies. Your body is your body. Touch it. The best place is in the shower. You have soap, feel the area. If anything is abnormal, take it to a mirror," he says. Once a year, have a professional look at it. He says he finds a lot of abnormalities that people live with and don't even know can be treated, such as fissures, hemorrhoids, and even cancer.

4. A SELF-CHECK CAN CATCH ANAL CANCER IN ITS EARLY STAGES.

"We can't control how [anal] melanoma happens, but it can be addressed early if you keep an eye on your butt. You can detect these changes early on and not die from it," Lugo advises. He recommends you "know your body head to toe. People tend to notice the dent in their car more often than they notice an issue in their body."

5. YOU DON'T HAVE TO SUNTAN TO GET ANAL CANCER.

Anal carcinoma, unfortunately, is not something you can usually feel with your hand. "It doesn't grow a tumor like a melanoma," Lugo says. "There's no bump." This kind of cancer can be genetic and is further reason to see a proctologist once a year, particularly if you have a family history of cancer.

6. ANAL SEX SLIGHTLY INCREASES YOUR RISK OF CANCER FROM THE HPV VIRUS.

Another form of anal carcinoma is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes genital warts. While this virus can spread from a penis or vagina to an anus, chances of transmission are greater by anal sex. Unlike the convenient test for the HPV virus in the vagina, there's not a similar test for signs of HPV of the anus. This is another reason why having a professional look at your anus is a good idea. "There might be a little wart, something that looks abnormal. If you're sexually active, have multiple partners, or having high-risk sex, you should be more vigilant every few months," Lugo says.

7. THERE'S NOTHING DIRTY ABOUT THE ANUS.

So long as you handle your basic hygiene, your anus isn't dirty, Lugo insists. He says the anus doesn't require soap to stay clean, just water and wiping. In fact, soaps and shampoos can irritate and dry out the sensitive skin of the anus, so go easy on those. "It's a very complex organ that we basically disregard," says Lugo.

8. HUMANS HAVE WIPED THEIR BUTTS IN A LOT OF WAYS.

Over the centuries, before the advent of toilet paper, humans turned to a wide variety of objects with which to wipe their butts, including "leaves, grass, stones, corn cobs, animal furs, sticks, snow, seashells, and, lastly, hands," as Scientific American reported. Notice that most of these objects are hard, and you might really appreciate that squeezably soft Charmin.

9. BUTT HAIR IS NORMAL.

In your infrequent inspection of your anus, you may discover that hair grows down there. Scientists aren't entirely sure why. That hasn't stopped us laypeople from asking, though. In fact, so many SciShow viewers asked host Hank Green to tackle the subject that he dedicated an episode to it. The prevailing theories can be summed up as: 1. we simply haven't evolved away from hair there, because it doesn't get in the way of elimination or procreation; 2. it helps conduct scents that our ancient selves relied upon for reproductive purposes; or 3. it helps prevent irritation or chafing in that sensitive tissue.

10. HEMORRHOIDS ARE VARICOSE VEINS OF THE ANUS.

The veins in your anus "help the anus seal," like a closing door, says Lugo. But when you get a hemorrhoid, essentially just a swollen, dilated vein, "it's like having a shoe in the door, because there's something uneven there." Not only can hemorrhoids bleed, throb and itch, they can lead to a condition called anal seepage. "There are many modalities to take care of them, but they're not very comfortable, and you may need a surgery to take care of it," Lugo says.

11. IT IS POSSIBLE TO PREVENT HEMORRHOIDS.

The key to preventing hemorrhoids is avoiding constipation and straining on the toilet. "Prevention is important: Keep your stool soft, [take] plenty of fiber, and drink plenty of water," Lugo advises.

12. TRY NOT TO SIT ON THE TOILET FOR MORE THAN FIVE MINUTES.

Don't spend more than five minutes on the toilet, Lugo advises. "You shouldn't be sitting there having a social event." When you sit on the toilet seat, gravity exerts its pull on tissues, including hemorrhoids. "When your butt is hanging there, all the blood [flows] into there. Hemorrhoids are like balloons, they stretch and contract."

13. BURNING SENSATION? IT MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THINK.

A burning or hot sensation of the anus is not always a hemorrhoid. It could be an anal fissure, or a tiny tear in the lining of the anus. "This can happen after a large bowel movement, especially if you already suffer constipation, which can stretch the anus," Lugo says. These can be treated by sitting in a hot bath for 20 minutes a day until the tissue heals. In cases where the fissure recurs and won't go away, surgery may be necessary.

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11 Facts About Fingernails
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Whether there's dirt beneath them or polish atop them, your fingernails serve more than just decorative purposes: They help keep your fingertips safe and have a multitude of special functions that even your doctor might not be aware of. “The nails occupy a unique space within dermatology and medicine in general, particularly because they are such a niche area about which few people have expertise,” Evan Rieder, assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells Mental Floss.

1. FINGERNAILS HAVE FOUR MAIN PARTS.

Along with skin and hair, nails are part of the body's integumentary system, whose main function is to protect your body from damage and infection. Fingernails have four basic structures: the matrix, the nail plate, the nail bed, and the skin around the nail (including the cuticle).

Fingernail cells grow continuously from a little pocket at the root of the nail bed called the matrix. The pale, crescent-shaped lunula—derived from Latin for "little moon"—on the nail itself is the visible portion of the matrix. If the lunula is injured, the  nail won't grow normally (a scarred lunula can result in a split nail), and changes in the lunula's appearance can also be signs of a systemic disease.

Fingernail cells are made of a protein called keratin (same as your hair). As the keratin cells push out of the matrix, they become hard, flat and compact, eventually forming the hard surface of the nail known as the nail plate. Beneath that is the nail bed, which almost never sees the light of day except when there's an injury or disease.

Surrounding the matrix is the cuticle, the semi-circle of skin that has a tendency to peel away from the nail. The skin just underneath the distal end of the fingernail is called the hyponychium, and if you've ever trimmed your nails too short, you know this skin can be slightly more sensitive than the rest of the fingertip.

2. THEY GROW AT A RATE OF 0.1 MILLIMETERS A DAY ...

That's about 3 to 4 millimeters per month. But they don't always grow at the same speed: Fingernails grow more quickly during the day and in summer (this may be related to exposure to sunlight, which produces more nail-nourishing vitamin D). Nails on your bigger fingers also grow faster, and men's grow faster than women's. The pinky fingernail grows the slowest of all the fingernails. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if you lose a fingernail due to injury, it can take up to six months to grow back (while a toenail could take as much as a year and a half).

3. ... BUT NOT AFTER YOU'RE DEAD.

You've probably heard that your fingernails keep growing after death. The truth is, they don't, according to the medical journal BMJ. What's actually happening is that the skin around the base of the fingernails retracts because the body is no longer pumping fluids into the tissues, and that creates a kind of optical illusion that makes the nails appear longer.

4. ITS ESTIMATED THAT 20 TO 30 PERCENT OF PEOPLE BITE THEIR NAILS.

Scientists say it's still unclear why, but they suspect nail-biters do it because they're bored, frustrated, concentrating, or because it just feels comforting (and anxiety doesn't seem to play a big role). Perfectionists who don't like to be idle are very likely to have the habit. Biters expose themselves to the dangerous crud that collects underneath the nail: The hyponychium attracts bacteria, including E. coli, and ingesting that through nail-biting can lead to gastrointestinal problems down the line. Biting can also damage teeth and jaws.

5. HUMAN FINGERNAILS ARE BASICALLY FLAT CLAWS.

Our primate ancestors had claws—which, like nails, are made of keratin. As human ancestors began using tools some 2.5 million years ago (or even earlier), evolutionary researchers believe that curved claws became a nuisance. To clutch and strike stone tools, our fingertips may have broadened, causing the claws to evolve into fingernails.

6. THE NAIL ACTUALLY MAKES YOUR FINGERTIP MORE SENSITIVE.

While the fingernail may be tough enough to protect tender flesh, it also has the paradoxical effect of increasing the sensitivity of the finger. It acts as a counterforce when the fingertip touches an object. "The finger is a particularly sensitive area because of very high density of nerve fibers," Rieder says.

7. FINGERNAILS CAN REVEAL LUNG, HEART, AND LIVER DISEASES.

"One of the most interesting facts about fingernails is that they are often a marker for disease within the body," Rieder says. Nail clubbing—an overcurvature of the nail plate and thickening of the skin around the nails—is a particularly significant sign of underlying illness, such as lung or heart disease, liver disease, or inflammatory bowel disease. Two-toned nails—whitish from the cuticle to the nail's midpoint and pink, brown, or reddish in the distal half—can be a sign of kidney and liver disease. Nails that are two-thirds whitish to one-third normal can also be a sign of liver disease. However, little white marks on your nails, known as milk spots (or punctate leukonychia) are just the remnants of any kind of trauma to the nail, from slamming it in a door to chewing on it too fervently.

8. YOU CAN GET A COMMON SKIN DISEASE ON YOUR NAILS.

Psoriasis is "typically thought of as a skin disease, but is actually a skin, joint, and nail disease, and when severe, a marker of cardiovascular risk," Rieder says. Psoriatic fingernails may have orange patches called oil spots, red lines known as splinter hemorrhages, lifting of the edges of the nails, and pits, "which look like a thumb tack was repeatedly and haphazardly pushed into the nails," he says.

Doctors often prescribe topical or injected corticosteroids to treat psoriatic nails, but using lasers is an emerging and potentially more cost-effective technique. Rieder relies on a pulsed dye laser, which uses an organic dye mixed with a solvent as the medium to treat nail psoriasis, "which can be both medically and aesthetically bothersome," he says. This laser is able to penetrate through the hard nail plate with minimal discomfort and "to treat targets of interest, in the case of psoriasis, blood vessels, and hyperactive skin," Rieder says.

9. ANCIENT CULTURES DISPLAYED SOCIAL STATUS WITH NAIL ART.

Painting and other forms of decorating nails have a history of offering social and aesthetic cues through variations in nail color, shape, and length, Rieder says. In fact, he adds, in some cultures ornate and well-decorated fingernails "serve as a proxy for social status."

Five thousand years ago in China, men and women of the Ming Dynasty aristocracy grew their nails long and covered them with golden nail guards or bright home-made polishes. The long nails allegedly announced to the world their social rank and their freedom from performing menial labor.

10. A FORMER BEAUTICIAN HELD THE WORLD RECORD FOR THE LONGEST NAILS.

Lee Redmond of Utah started growing her nails in 1979 and kept at it until she held the world record for "longest fingernails on a pair of hands ever (female)" in 2008. Her right thumbnail was 2 feet, 11 inches and the collective length of all her nails was 28 feet, 4 inches. She also applied nail hardener daily and painted them a reflective gold. Unfortunately, she broke her nails in a 2009 car accident and has no plans to regrow them.

11. THE FIRST NAIL CLIPPERS WERE PATENTED IN 1875.

Today, biters don't have to use their teeth to trim their nails. While the earliest tools for cutting nails were most likely sharp rocks, sand, and knives, the purpose-built nail clipper—though it might be more accurately called a circular nail file—was designed by a Boston, Massachusetts inventor named Valentine Fogerty and patented in 1875. The nail clippers we know today were the design of inventors Eugene Heim and Oelestin Matz, who were granted their patent for a clamp-style fingernail clipper in 1881.

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What's Really Happening When We See 'Stars' After Rubbing Our Eyes?
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.

It's likely happened to you before: You start rubbing your eyes and almost immediately begin seeing colors, specks, and swirls from behind your closed lids. So what's happening when you see these 2001-esque "stars"? Do they only occur upon rubbing? Does everyone experience them?

Before we can get to what causes the lights, we need to understand a bit about how the eyes work. Angie Wen, a cornea surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, tells Mental Floss that the retina—the innermost layer of the eye—consists of millions of cells, or photoreceptors. These cells, she says, "are responsible for receiving information from the outside world and converting them to electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain by the optic nerve. Then, the brain interprets them as images representing the world around us."

However, what we see doesn't just stop there. Sometimes "we see light that actually comes from inside our eyes or from electric stimulation of the brain rather than from the outside world," Wen says. "These bursts of seemingly random intense and colorful lights are called phosphenes, and appear due to electrical discharges from the cells inside our eyes that are a normal part of cellular function."

People have been writing and theorizing about phosphenes for thousands of years. Greek philosophers thought the bursts of light were the result of fire inside our heads: "The eye obviously has fire within it, for when the eye is struck fire flashes out," wrote Alcmaeon of Croton (6th–5th century BCE), a philosopher and early neuroscientist, of the swirls and specks someone sees after getting a blow to the head. A century later, Plato—who believed that a "visual current" [PDF] streamed out of the eye—wrote that "Such fire as has the property, not of burning, but of yielding a gentle light they [the Gods] contrived should become the proper body of each day."

Plato's take was still the dominant one through the Middle Ages. Eventually, Newton (1642–1727) theorized a concept that's more in line with what's believed today about these strange sparkly visions: The phenomenon is due to light that's produced and observed when pressure and motion is placed on the eyes.

Eleonora Lad, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Duke University Medical Center who has a background in neuroscience, explains exactly why eye rubbing generates these visions: "Most vision researchers believe that phosphenes result from the normal activity of the visual system after stimulation of one of its parts from some stimulus other than light," including putting external pressure on the eyes. (Interestingly, due to retinal damage, blind people can't see phosphenes caused by pressure, but they can see them when their visual cortex is electrically stimulated. In hopes of turning this phenomenon into improved vision for the blind, scientists have developed a cortical visual prosthesis, implanted in the visual cortex, that generates patterns of phosphenes. The device has been approved by the FDA for clinical trial.)

As Alcmaeon rightly pointed out, there are causes for the bursts of light beyond just rubbing your eyes: Getting hit in the eye can produce this phenomenon—as can a sneeze, a surprisingly powerful event that tends to clamp our eyes shut, Wen says.

Receiving an MRI or EEG may also trigger it. MRIs, for example, produce a changing magnetic field which can stimulate the visual cortex, making a person see these flashing lights. When it comes to an EEG, depending on the brain stimulation frequency band (Hz) used, some patients experience the phenomenon when closing their eyes, which is believed to come from retinal stimulation during the process.

And the activity doesn't only happen on Earth; astronauts in space have also been known to experience them. As reported in 2006 in the journal Vision Research, "over 80 percent of astronauts serving in today's NASA or ESA (European Space Agency) programs have perceived phosphenes at least in some missions and often over several orbits." They're mainly attributed to interactions between the eye and cosmic ray particles in space, outside the Earth's protective magnetic field.

No matter the cause, the bursts of light are perfectly normal—but that doesn't mean you should engage in excessive eye rubbing. Wen says ophthalmologists advise against rubbing your eyes or applying vigorous pressure; according to Lad, too much rubbing may be damaging to the cornea and lens or "result in a loss of fatty tissue around the eyes, causing the eyes to look deep-set."

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