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10 Stubbed Facts About Your Big Toe

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Tangopaso via Wikimedia Commons 

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.

Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia Commons


 
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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The Body
7 Essential Facts About the Pelvis
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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 pelvis, which crooner Elvis was famous for thrusting around in ways that raised eyebrows, is not actually a single body part but a term that refers to a collection of bones, muscles and organs below the waist. We spoke to Katherine Gillogley, department chair of obstetrics and gynecology with Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, California, for these seven facts about the pelvis.

1. SO WHAT IS THE PELVIS, EXACTLY?

"The pelvis refers to the lower abdominal area in both men and women," Gillogley says. "An important function of the pelvis region is to protect organs used for digestion and reproduction, though all its functions are crucial," she says. It protects the bladder, both large and small intestines, and male and female reproductive organs. Another key role is to support the hip joints.

2. THE PELVIC BONES FORM A BASIN.

Four bones come together to form a bowl-like shape, or basin: the two hip bones, the sacrum (the triangle-shaped bone at the low back) and the coccyx (also known as the tailbone).

3. YOUR PELVIC FLOOR IS LIKE A TRAMPOLINE.

At the bottom of the pelvis lies your pelvic floor. You don't have to worry about sweeping it, but you might want to do Kegel exercises to keep it strong. The pelvic floor is like a "mini-trampoline made of firm muscle," according the Continence Foundation of Australia. Just like a trampoline, the pelvic floor is flexible and can move up and down. It also creates a surface (floor) for the pelvic organs to lie upon: the bladder, uterus, and bowels. It has holes, too, for vagina, urethra, and anus to pass through.

4. IT PLAYS A KEY PART IN WALKING.

Anyone who has ever broken a pelvic bone or pulled a pelvic muscle will know just how key a role the pelvis plays in such functions as walking and standing. "The pelvis also acts as a solid foundation for the attachment of the spinal column and legs," says Gillogley.

5. THE FEMALE PELVIS STARTS OUT LARGER, BUT NARROWS OVER TIME.

Gillogley says that the female pelvis "tends to be larger and wider" than the male, most likely to accommodate a baby during pregnancy and to make childbirth possible. However, women's pelvises narrow as they age, suggesting that they start out wider to accommodate childbearing and then shift when that is no longer necessary. A shifting pelvis shape is thought to be a key part of our evolutionary history, as it changed as when we began walking upright.    

6. PREGNANCY CHANGES THE PELVIS FOREVER.

During pregnancy the body secretes a hormone known as relaxin to help the body accommodate the growing baby and soften the cervix. However, what happens is, "the joints between the pelvic bones actually loosen and slightly separate during pregnancy and childbirth," Gillogley says. Sometimes, however, relaxin can make the joints too loose, causing a painful syndrome known as symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), causing the pelvic joint to become unstable, causing pain and weakness in the pelvis, perineum and even upper thighs during walking and other activities. Many women with the condition have to wear a pelvic belt. It usually resolves after pregnancy is over, though physical therapy may be necessary.

7. IT'S ACCIDENT PRONE.

According to the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, about 8 to 9 percent of blunt trauma includes pelvic injury, Gillogley says. "These accidents include falls, motor vehicle crashes, bicycle accidents, and pedestrians being struck by moving vehicles. With these serious injuries, pelvic bones can fracture or dislocate and sometimes bladder injury even occurs." So take care with your pelvis—in worse-case scenarios, breaks of the pelvic bones can require pins, rods, and surgery to fix.

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science
Microscopic Videos Provide a Rare Close-Up Glimpse of the Natural World
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Courtesy of Nikon

Nature’s wonders aren’t always visible to the naked eye. To celebrate the miniature realm, Nikon’s Small World in Motion digital video competition awards prizes to the most stunning microscopic moving images, as filmed and submitted by photographers and scientists. The winners of the seventh annual competition were just announced on September 21—and you can check out the top submissions below.

FIRST PRIZE

Daniel von Wangenheim, a biologist at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, took first place with a time-lapse video of thale cress root growth. For the uninitiated, thale cress—known to scientists as Arabidopsis thalianais a small flowering plant, considered by many to be a weed. Plant and genetics researchers like thale cress because of its fast growth cycle, abundant seed production, ability to pollinate itself, and wild genes, which haven’t been subjected to breeding and artificial selection.

Von Wangenheim’s footage condenses 17 hours of root tip growth into just 10 seconds. Magnified with a confocal microscope, the root appears neon green and pink—but von Wangenheim’s work shouldn’t be appreciated only for its aesthetics, he explains in a Nikon news release.

"Once we have a better understanding of the behavior of plant roots and its underlying mechanisms, we can help them grow deeper into the soil to reach water, or defy gravity in upper areas of the soil to adjust their root branching angle to areas with richer nutrients," said von Wangenheim, who studies how plants perceive and respond to gravity. "One step further, this could finally help to successfully grow plants under microgravity conditions in outer space—to provide food for astronauts in long-lasting missions."

SECOND PRIZE

Second place went to Tsutomu Tomita and Shun Miyazaki, both seasoned micro-photographers. They used a stereomicroscope to create a time-lapse video of a sweating fingertip, resulting in footage that’s both mesmerizing and gross.

To prompt the scene, "Tomita created tension amongst the subjects by showing them a video of daredevils climbing to the top of a skyscraper," according to Nikon. "Sweating is a common part of daily life, but being able to see it at a microscopic level is equal parts enlightening and cringe-worthy."

THIRD PRIZE

Third prize was awarded to Satoshi Nishimura, a professor from Japan’s Jichi Medical University who’s also a photography hobbyist. He filmed leukocyte accumulations and platelet aggregations in injured mouse cells. The rainbow-hued video "provides a rare look at how the body reacts to a puncture wound and begins the healing process by creating a blood clot," Nikon said.

To view the complete list of winners, visit Nikon’s website.

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