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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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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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Why Your Knuckles Make That Satisfying Cracking Sound, According to Science
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Scientific curiosity is not always burdened by matters of great consequence. Over the years, considerable money and time has been applied to matters involving facial recognition between sheep, whether the flow of urine is impeded by someone watching you pee, and whether humans can capably swim in a pool full of syrup. (They can, almost as well as water.)

Now, researchers from Stanford University and Ecole Polytechnique in France have turned the roving eye of science to the phenomenon of knuckle-cracking. According to Gizmodo, a computer simulation was created to confirm an earlier theory that the audible noise that comes from the human hand after putting pressure on the knuckle was the result of gas bubbles popping inside the finger joint.

Conclusion: Probably true.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrated that microscopic bubbles inside the lubricating synovial fluid of the joint collapse when a knuckle-cracking session commences. To use an imperfect analogy, the cavitation bubbles are like the body’s Bubble Wrap. Popping them produces an audible—and for many, a very pleasing—sound.

To compile data, researchers took geometric representations of the joint's movements during a cracking session and turned them into mathematical equations. (Imaging has not been shown to be very productive in this field, as the crack takes only about 300 milliseconds and is not easily visualized.) The software models demonstrated that pressure shifts in the joint fluid increase pressure on the gas bubbles. Unlike packing material, however, the gas bubbles don't really perforate—they experience a partial collapse but remain suspended in the joint.

So does this solve the mystery surrounding cracked knuckles? Not entirely. Because it was a simulation, there's a possibility of mathematical error. Proponents of alternative theories—that it's not bubbles collapsing but bubbles being created that produce the noise—feel there's more work to be done. We can only hope a complete understanding will come in our lifetime. Fingers crossed. And cracking.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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