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10 Stubbed Facts About Your Big Toe

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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.

Your toes are possibly the most underappreciated, yet hard-working parts of your body. Though you may give little thought to them until you stub one stumbling out of bed in the night, these facts about your big toe might surprise you.

1. THE BIG TOE CARRIES THE GREATEST LOAD.

Each time you take a step, your foot rolls forward, shifting your body weight onto the ball of the foot as you prepare to push off into your next step. For most people, this means your big toe bears the load of your weight as you push off. Considering how many steps you take in a day, it’s no wonder people often experience pain in this toe.

2. TOE PROSTHETICS DATE BACK TO THE EGYPTIANS.

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Humans have been figuring out ways to work around faulty toes for centuries. Researchers at Manchester University's KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology found a wood and leather prosthetic of a big toe on the mummified foot of a 50- to 60-year-old woman who had undergone a toe amputation. Dating to the first millennium BCE, it's known as "the Cairo Toe."

3. YOUR BIG TOE HAS ONLY TWO BONES.

Despite being the biggest toe on the foot, the big toe only consists of two phalanges (or toe bones), the distal and proximal. Your other toes have three bones, but most of your big toe is made up of flesh and muscle.

4. YOUR BIG TOE AND GENITALS ARE NEIGHBORS … IN YOUR BRAIN.

The somatosensory cortex of your brain receives sensory information from all over the body. The part of the cortex that receives input from your feet happens to adjacent to the area that receives information from your genitals.

5. THIS PROXIMITY MIGHT EXPLAIN FOOT FETISHES.

Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego theorizes that foot fetishes could possibly result from a cross-wiring in the brain between the foot and the genital sensory centers.

6. GOUT OFTEN BEGINS IN THE BIG TOE.

Henry VIII of England as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. King Henry was reputed to have suffered from gout. Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
The disease, a form of arthritis where sharp uric acid crystals build up in the body, frequently appears first as pain and swelling in the big toes, though researchers aren’t entirely sure why this is. Though long known as the "disease of kings" because it afflicted those with access to rich food and drink, gout is increasingly common among us, er, commoners.

7. THERE'S A REASON STUBBING YOUR TOE HURTS SO &!@$# MUCH.

Toes are loaded with numerous nerve-ending receptors called nociceptors that are highly sensitive to actual and potential tissue damage. “When you stub your toe, you’re massively stimulating a bunch of these nerve fibers at the same time. Those signals integrate in your spinal cord, which in turn relays that information to your brain. “It’s just a really big input,” Allan Basbaum, chair of UCSF’s Department of Anatomy, told WIRED. “The brain reads that, and it hurts like hell.”

8. THE BIG TOE SEPARATES HUMANS FROM APES.

Recently scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa determined that the base of the big toe, known as the hallux, is what makes it possible for humans to walk and run upright. They concluded that in other living apes, “the big toe is more thumb-like in facilitating grasping capabilities,” such as tree-climbing behaviors. In other words, our big toes demonstrate that humans are uniquely adapted to standing, walking, and running upright on two legs.

9. SURGEONS CAN MAKE THUMBS OUT OF BIG TOES …

It’s much easier to live without a big toe than it is a thumb. That's why surgeons have begun to master a procedure called a toe-to-thumb transfer in which they replace injured or severed thumbs with big toes. While it sounds gruesome, it’s a life-changing operation that can significantly improve people’s quality of life, and ability to grip things again. They sometimes use other toes as well (warning: graphic images).

10. … AND LOSING YOUR BIG TOE WON'T STOP YOU FROM GETTING AROUND.

While your gait may become uneven, losing a big toe—or even two—won’t prevent you from running, walking, or dancing. It will take some getting used to, but your feet are remarkably adaptable even without big toes.

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Animals
Why Male Hyenas Have It Worse Than Females
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A life of hunting zebras and raising young on the savanna isn’t half bad for a female hyena. Sadly, the same can’t be said for their male counterparts. As MinuteEarth explains, things take a downturn for the males of the species once they hit adolescence. No female in their pack will mate with them, a behavior scientists believe evolved to avoid inbreeding, so they head off in search of a different group to join. After dealing with vicious hazing from their new clan, they file in at the bottom of the rank and wait for other males above them to die so that they can slowly gain status.

Even after rising through the hierarchy, the most a male hyena can aspire to is being second place to the lowest-ranking female. Thanks to their bulky build and aggressive behavior, female hyenas enjoy a dominant position that’s rare in the animal kingdom.

After watching the video below, head over here for more facts about hyenas.

[h/t MinuteEarth]

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The Body
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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