Looking at hands for insight about health is no longer solely the domain of sketchy fortune-tellers. Scientists have found correlations with everything from colored rashes and health conditions like diabetes to white nails and liver problems. A health self-assessment is just an arm’s length away.
Spots and Colors
Occasionally systemic diseases can manifest themselves on hands. Orange or yellow-hued xanthomas, or bumps of lipid deposits on the skin, can signal metabolic conditions like elevated lipids, thyroid disease, kidney problems or diabetes.
Still, dermatologist Dr. Lance Barazani of Advanced Dermatology in Commack cautioned to take self-diagnosis with a grain of salt. “No one should be alarmed if they see something on their hands. Most likely, you are seeing just a rash or irritation.”
Orange palms are often a sign of a large amount of carrots, orange squash or other foods with high levels of beta-carotene, rather than anything more alarming.
Most are familiar with brownish sunspots on the tops of hands, but look out for spots that change shape, color or size, or scab and crust over, which may be pre-cancerous growths. Those with a history of eczema should be aware of their personal triggers, but sometimes eczema can be caused by allergies or irritants in the environment. And some people with recurrent hand eczema often have asthma and hay fever. “Hand eczema is very common,” explained Dr. Barazani. “It’s not typically associated with any other issues or food allergies,” which are common misdiagnoses. Avoiding harsh chemicals and cleaners can help keep the irritations down.
Blood blisters are patches of blood pooled under the skin and are caused by friction trauma to the surface. Repetitive movements like the kind in manual labor, exercises that excessively rub palms against equipment (like tennis) or hobbies like drumming can all cause the blisters. Don’t pierce it! Apply ice, clean and dress the area and beware of any that reoccur or don’t seem to heal. Sometimes malignant melanomas can look like a blood blister under the nail.
Shapes on the hands and fingers can also be diagnosed. Lumps, or nodules, under the skin on the knuckles can be a marker for osteoarthritis, gout or rheumatoid arthritis. Reddish-colored bumps on knuckles or fingers can occasionally be a sign of an internal malignancy. And recurrent pink spots and broken capillaries on cuticles is a hallmark of dermatomyositis, a condition that affects connective tissue.
“You should always watch anything that doesn’t go away or keeps coming back,” said Dr. Barazani. Even benign hand nuisances like warts should be treated. In fact, warts are really a sign of infection with a strain of human papillomavirus (HPV) and they are contagious. Use an over-the-counter wart treatment and if that doesn’t work, a dermatologist can freeze them off before they spread.
There are plenty of popular myths about the meaning of marks on nails, like white spots indicating calcium deficiency, but usually changes in the nails have to do with trauma or injury. White spots mean that something has damaged the nail, and as it grows out, it displays that tell-tale whiteness. Even an overly-enthusiastic manicure or an allergic reaction to nail polish can cause this kind of stress to the nail. Extremely white nails can indicate an issue with the liver, but other bodily symptoms would most likely be present.
Cracked cuticles are another bothersome hand nag and are caused by dry and cold weather. Nails prone to cracking should be covered in gloves, moisturized or pampered with cuticle creams to keep the area from being exposed to the dry winter air. Try not to pick at any loose ends and instead trim with a cuticle scissor as necessary. Most likely the environment is the culprit, but sometimes a bad diet can contribute to less-than-stellar skin around the nails. Make sure you are getting enough zinc and essential fatty acids, along with plenty of water to drink.
The hand health takeaway lesson is a golden one: Keep a close watch on anything out of the ordinary. Concerns about pain or unusual symptoms should prompt a visit to an internist or primary care physician.
Fascinating Finger Lengths
Recent studies have demonstrated that the length of the ring finger, in comparison to the index finger, is influenced by how much testosterone a baby was exposed to in the womb, which is associated with an increased or decreased risk of certain diseases. The more testosterone in utero, the longer the ring finger. Women with longer index fingers are thought to have received more estrogen in the womb and are more likely to develop breast cancer in their lifetimes. For men, those with longer index fingers were 33 percent less likely to get prostate cancer, according to a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Cancer.