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11 Facts About the Thumb

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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.

When it comes to the fingers on your hand, the thumb definitely does its own thing. Thumbs only have two bones, so they're obviously shorter, and they play a very important role that no other finger can claim; thanks to their unique saddle-like joint shape, and a little muscle known as the abductor pollicis brevis, you can bend and stretch your thumbs opposite your fingers to grip things. This is why they're known as "opposable thumbs." To bring you these 11 facts about the thumb, Mental Floss spoke with three experts on this unique digit: Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon in Houston; Loren Fishman, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, in NYC; and Ryan Katz, attending hand surgeon at the Curtis Hand Center, located at the Medstar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

1. OPPOSABLE THUMBS MAY HAVE FREED UP OUR ANCESTORS' MOUTHS FOR LANGUAGE.

The evolution of a thumb helped our ancestors evolve to be better at defense, allowing for throwing and clubbing activities. Moreover, Fishman says, it may have even contributed to our cognitive function. "Some say this is why we have language," he says, "because we can hold things in our hands and [therefore] use our mouths for something else—such as discussing the functions of the thumb."

2. THUMBS HAVE THEIR OWN PULSE.

You might have noticed that medical professionals take a pulse with the middle and index finger. The reason is because there's a big artery in the thumb, the princeps pollicis artery, and arteries pulse, making it difficult to feel a pulse in a neck if you're using your thumb.

3. THE THUMB SEPARATES US FROM OTHER ANIMALS. MOSTLY.

"The thumb is wonderful. It evolved in such a way that we can use it to do so many amazing things, and it's one of the things that separates us from other animals," Bergin says. A handful of other animals, mostly primates, have opposable thumbs, or toes, as the case may be. These include orangutans, chimpanzees, a phylum of frogs known as phyllomedusa, some lemurs, and giant pandas—although their thumb-like apparatus is really just an extra sesamoid bone that acts like a thumb.

4. TOES CAN BECOME THUMBS.

If you should lose a thumb, fear not, says Katz. "It can be rebuilt by surgeons using your big toe." This specialized surgery uses microvascular surgery techniques to transfer your big toe to your hand, where it will function almost exactly as your thumb did. "The toe is then brought to life by sewing together small arteries and veins under a microscope," Katz says, a complicated surgery that has become vastly more sophisticated over the years. The second toe can be used too, as you can see in this medical journal, but we warn you: It's not for the faint of heart.

5. … BUT IS A THUMB WORTH LOSING A TOE OVER?

It may not seem like a big deal to lose one thumb—after all, you've got another one. But Katz cites the American Medical Association's "Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment" [PDF], which states your thumb is so important that a complete amputation "will result in a 40 percent impairment to the whole hand." In fact, they claim that it would take "a complete amputation of the middle, ring, and small fingers to equal the impairment of an amputated thumb."

6. IT'S BETTER THAN HAVING YOUR HAND SEWN TO YOUR FOOT.

Katz also points out that "there used to be a common surgical procedure for thumb reconstruction, where the patient's hand was sewn to their foot for a period of time." This procedure was called the Nicoladani procedure, after the German surgical innovator Carol Nicoladoni. "It was a precursor to transplant surgery and plastic or reconstructive surgery as we know it today," he says.

7. YOUR THUMB MAKES AN ASTONISHINGLY WIDE VARIETY OF MOTIONS.

Other than pinching and grasping, Katz points out that the thumb "translates, rotates, and flexes all at once." This coordinated set of motions provides strength and dexterity. "Thus it's the thumb that allows us to easily pen an essay, turn a nut, pick up a coin, or button a shirt."

8. THAT DEXTERITY ALSO MAKES IT FRAGILE.

The thumb may appear to only have two knuckles, but it actually has a third, right above the wrist. This is called the first carpometacarpal joint. If that starts to hurt, or gets big enough to look like a bump or a mass, you may have carpometacarpal joint disorder (CMC), a common condition that is partly genetic and partly from repetitive use, according to Bergin. "You can get arthritis in the other joints, too, but this one is the most debilitating," she says. "First it becomes painful, and then you lose the ability to use it." Surgery can help with the pain, but it won't restore full mobility.

9. PAIN IN YOUR THUMB MAY REQUIRE LIFESTYLE CHANGES.

Bergin suggests small lifestyle changes so you don't need to grip anything too hard can make a huge difference, such as buying milk jugs with handles or using an electric toothbrush. "There are a lot of things we can do [to help] on a daily basis that shouldn't affect our quality of life," she suggests.

10. SWIPING RIGHT MIGHT BE DANGEROUS.

While we generally associate thumb arthritis with older people, Bergin says she now sees it in people in their forties and even thirties. Other studies have suggested that frequent phone use can be damaging. "There must be a genetic component to premature wearing of the thumb," she says. If it runs in your family, it's a good idea to be proactive and try to avoid repetitive gripping activities.

11. WHAT IT MEANS IF YOUR THUMB IS NUMB.

If instead of pain you're experiencing numbness of the thumb that extends to your index and middle fingers, you may be showing early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Fortunately, this isn't an emergency. "The condition takes a long time to become a big problem" Bergin says. People can sometimes help the condition by wearing wrist braces and getting physical therapy. If you just can't take it, "you can get surgery at any point if you failed to improve with bracing," she says. The surgery can reduce mobility, but it should take away the numbness and pain.

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The Body
6 Quick Facts About the Buttocks
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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.

You can thank your buttocks for a number of physical actions you take every day, from moving your hip and thigh during walking or running, to rising from a sitting position, climbing, and even just standing upright. While lack of exercise can make these muscles soft, in general they're some of the hardest working muscles in your body. To learn more, Mental Floss spoke with Clifford Stark, medical director of Sports Medicine at Chelsea in New York City, and Vivian Eisenstadt, an orthopedic and spine specialist in physical therapy in Los Angeles. Here are six quick facts we picked up about the glutes.

1. WHEN IT COMES TO THE BOOTY, BIGGER MIGHT BE BETTER.

Your glutes are your body's largest and most powerful muscle group, Stark tells Mental Floss. Your powerful buttocks are actually comprised of three gluteal muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus, often shorthanded to "the glutes."

"They are extremely important in preventing all sorts of injuries," Stark adds. Many injuries, from hips to knee, stem from weak gluteal muscles. It's important to keep your glutes strong—but not tight.

2. IF YOU'RE NOT BORN WITH IT, YOU CAN PAY FOR IT.

In 2016, 4251 people in the U.S. got a butt lift, and another 2999 got butt implants, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons' 2016 Report [PDF]. These numbers make sense, because according to the professional organization, butt implants were the fastest growing type of plastic surgery in 2015. Yet while butt surgery may be increasingly popular, it still hasn't cracked the top 5 of cosmetic surgical procedures (breast augmentation, liposuction, nose reshaping, eyelid surgery, and facelift, in that order).

3. WHY DO WE CALL A BARE BUTT A "FULL MOON"?

In the Ming dynasty in China, bare buttocks were seen as quite erotic and they were often compared to a full moon, perhaps because of their pert roundness.

4. VICTORIANS WERE REALLY INTO EROTIC SPANKING.

While spanking has been proven bad for kids, it may be good for your sex life. Victorians were particularly obsessed with "erotic spanking." According to Deborah Lutz, author of Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism, "something like 50 percent of the pornography of the time was flagellation pornography," she told Salon. One prevailing theory suggests that the practice has its roots in the upper-class men who as children had attended private schools, where a common punishment was to be whipped in front of their classmates with birch switches. "Any schoolboys who wanted to could come and watch. For many of these boys, of course, it was traumatic, but for other boys it's an erotic experience. It developed into this masochistic eroticism," Lutz said.

5. BACK PAIN MAY ORIGINATE IN YOUR BUTTOCKS.

"A little-known fact is that strengthening your buttocks helps decrease back pain," Eisenstadt tells Mental Floss. "While physical and occupational therapists know this, many people are not aware and increase risk of injury by neglecting this important muscle." In her practice, when people come in complaining of back pain, she checks out their butts first.

6. A SMALL NUMBER OF PEOPLE HAVE THIS UNUSUAL POSITIONING OF THE SCIATIC NERVE.

"Sciatica is a laymen's term for pain down the leg," says Stark. The sciatic nerve typically lies right on top of the piriformis muscle, a small muscle that lives deep in the buttock, behind the gluteus maximus. For a certain percentage of the population, however, he says, the sciatic nerve sometimes pierces right through the muscle. Those people are especially prone to sciatic pain, he says: "All it takes is a spasm to cut off that nerve."

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The Body
8 Little Known Facts About the Temple
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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.

 

At the edges of the eyebrows, you’ll find the temple, the flat, tender side of the head where you often press your fingers to relieve a headache. In movies, one karate chop to this area can allegedly kill a person, but is this really true? What lies beneath that smooth surface of skin that’s so delicate? To learn more, Mental Floss spoke to Dr. Abbas Anwar, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at Southern California Head and Neck Medical Group in Santa Monica.

1. THE TEMPLE IS A JUNCTURE.

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It's technically where four skull bones—the frontal, parietal, temporal, and sphenoid—meet in the skull. This vulnerable juncture is called the pterion, which means "wing" in Greek but sounds like a kind of dinosaur.

2. IT REVEALS A DISTANT LINK TO REPTILES.

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The temporal bone itself is made up of five smaller parts, which fuse together before birth. One of these pieces, called the tympanic part, may be evolutionarily linked to the angular bone in the lower jaws of reptiles.

3. IT'S THE THINNEST PART OF THE SKULL …

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While these skull bones are "relatively strong," though thin, Anwar tells Mental Floss, the point at which they meet is the weakest point because there's no solid bone beneath them. "As such, this area is at risk with direct horizontal blows."

4. … WHICH IS WHY MAORI WARRIORS CRAFTED A SPECIAL WEAPON TO CRUSH IT.

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When Maori warriors of the first nations tribes of New Zealand and Australia went into battle, one weapon they took with them was the patu onewa, a flat, heavy club carved from stones such as basalt, and sometimes jade, for the specific purpose of delivering a fatal, crushing blow to the temple.

5. THE TEMPLE COVERS A MAJOR ARTERY.

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Running below these bones is a large artery known as the middle meningeal artery. It supplies blood to the outer covering of the brain, the meninges. "If hit hard enough, one of the four bones at this point can fracture inward and lacerate the middle meningeal artery," Anwar explains. This can cause an epidural hematoma, essentially "a collection of blood that builds up around the brain and compresses it."

Severe bleeding can cause "catastrophic consequences" if not recognized and treated promptly, including brain herniation (bulging brain tissue), hemiparesis (weakness of one side of the body), and death.

6. IS YOUR TEMPLE A SACRED SPACE?

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Etymologists don't entirely agree on the meaning of the word temple, which has multiple origins. It may derive from the Latin word for time, tempus, according to a Dartmouth Medical School anatomy course: "The connection may be that with the passage of time, grey hairs appear here early on. Or it may relate to the pulsations of the underlying superficial temporal artery, marking the time we have left here."

It could also possibly hail from the Greek word temenos, meaning "place cut off," which would explain the idea of a temple of worship as well as that juncture of bones at the side of the head. 

In Old English, tempel meant "any place regarded as occupied by divine presence," which might be code for the brain as the residence of consciousness or God.

More likely it's related to the Greek pterion, which as you'll recall means "wing." In Greek mythology, Hermes, messenger of the gods, wore a helmet with wings, which were positioned over the temples.  

7. IT'S PRONE TO SKIN CANCER THAT'S HARD TO REMOVE.

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Surgeon Gabriel Weston writes in The Guardian that skin cancers frequently turn up in this area from over exposure to the Sun, which makes for a challenging surgical procedure. "It is often not possible simply to sew up the hole in the skin after cutting a cancer out, since doing so can easily distort the contour of the eye," he writes.

To get around the problem, Weston uses a special technique called a Wolfe graft. After cutting away the cancerous lesion, "I measure out a circle of equal size in the skin above the collar-bone (where the skin is similar) and remove it." He grafts this skin patch to the patient's temple "with tiny silk sutures." 

8. BRAIN FREEZE ISN'T IN YOUR BRAIN.

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Sometimes when you eat or drink something cold too quickly, you get brain freeze, which can feel like someone has taken knives to your temples. But the pain isn't actually in your brain at all, as brains have no pain receptors. While researchers haven't been able to determine a cause of what's technically called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, or sometimes HICS ("headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus"), they theorize that the painful freeze you experience is likely caused by a quick cooling of the blood in the back of your throat at the juncture your internal carotid and anterior cerebral arteries, which can cause spasms or constrictions of the arterial branches.

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