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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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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.

More recently, the man who holds the Guinness record for the "longest fingernails on a single hand—ever" chose to chop them off at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! in New York City in July 2018. Shridhar Chillal of Pune, India started growing the nails of his left hand in 1952, when he was 14 years old. At last count, the total length measured 29 feet, 10.1 inches.

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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Thousands of Swedes Are Replacing Their Credit Cards with Microchip Implants
John MacDougall, AFP/Getty Images
John MacDougall, AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of people in Sweden have opted to trade in their plastic credit cards for tiny microchips implanted underneath their skin, Lund University digital culture lecturer Moa Petersén writes in Quartz. The chips, which use near-field communication (NFC) technology, stand in place of credit cards, key cards, and rail cards—and future applications of this technology are likely to be developed as it gains popularity.

The chips are typically the size of a grain of rice and are implanted just under the skin between the thumb and forefinger. While they're commonly used in pets, some critics say any human application of the technology starts to cross over into dystopian territory.

So why have they caught on in Sweden? Some suggest that Sweden's strong social welfare programs have made Swedes too trusting of their government—a view Petersén disagrees with.

"The factors behind why roughly 3500 Swedes have had microchips implanted in them are more complex than you might expect," she writes, noting that the country fosters a highly technological society. Skype and Spotify were both founded in Sweden, and its citizens tend to place a lot of faith in the latest technologies. The country also has a thriving biohacking scene that promotes bio-digital experimentation. A video by Dezeen shows passengers on Sweden’s SJ Railways, who have had microchips containing their membership number implanted under their skin, simply holding up their hands for the ticket collector to scan.

This trend isn’t just happening in Sweden. Thousands of Germans have gotten microchip implants in recent years, including one man whose microchip contained a link to his last will and testament. In Australia, a technology festival called Pause Fest attracted media attention for giving VIP guests injectable microchips that would grant them access to all areas of the festival, while also unlocking special digital features and allowing them to exchange business cards with ease.

And in the U.S., a software company in Wisconsin announced last year it would give its employees the option of getting microchip implants that could be used to unlock doors, log into their computers, and even purchase vending machine snacks. As for whether microchip implants will go mainstream in the U.S., only time will tell. 

[h/t Quartz]

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