What Your Hands Reveal About Your Health

Our bodies are pretty good at sending out red flags when something’s wrong with our health—such as a fever due to infection or itchy hives from an allergic reaction. But sometimes the signs are misleading or easy to miss, even when they’re on one of the body parts you look at most: your hands! For instance, did you know that the length of your fingers, the state of your nails and even the shade of your palms can help predict you how healthy you’ll be in the future? Check out these little hand signals, and if anything sounds familiar, see your doc today—a bright and healthy future is up for grabs!

Swollen Fingers
WHAT THEY MEAN: We all know that salty snacks and PMS can cause bloat. But if you shun the shaker and your rings still don’t fit, and if your period isn’t due soon, this kind of swelling could suggest hypothyroidism, which means the thyroid gland is underproducing the hormones you need to regulate your metabolism and keep your body functioning properly. Thyroid problems can lead to a sluggish metabolism, weight gain and water accumulation, explains Jenny Kim, M.D., a dermatology professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. Untreated hypothyroidism can cause fatigue, low libido and even (at extreme levels) heart failure. A simple blood test will show if your thyroid is underperforming, and doctor-monitored synthetic hormone pills can help your hormones—and your fingers—return to normal.

Red Palms
WHAT THEY MEAN: Itchy, burning red palms may point to eczema, a chronic skin disorder that can worsen when you’re stressed; to limit irritation, avoid potential chemical triggers by opting for soapless cleansers and wearing gloves when cleaning or gardening. If those don’t help, redness could indicate an allergy to nickel in jewelry, chemicals in products, or antibiotics (and symptoms might show up on other parts of your body beyond the palms of your hands). Such allergies are usually more annoying than ominous, but your physician can tell for sure by doing a patch test and pinpointing what to avoid, Dr. Kim says. One exception: If you’re pregnant, don’t sweat red palms. During pregnancy, blood flow increases throughout the body, causing temporary redness in more than half of expecting women.

Pale Fingernails
WHAT THEY MEAN: “Nails should turn white when you press on them, then return to pinkish when you release,” says Anthony Martinez, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California in San Diego. “If your nail stays white for more than a minute or two, you may have anemia or low iron.” Iron deficiency can lead to fatigue or, in serious cases, heart problems, so you’ll want to alert your doctor. To dodge a deficiency, fill up on iron-rich foods (such as lean meats, spinach and other dark green veggies, legumes, and nuts and seeds like almonds and pumpkin seeds) and foods with vitamin C, which aids iron absorption.

Numb, Blue Fingertips
WHAT THEY MEAN: Blue-hued fingers may signal a condition called Raynaud’s disease, a temporary blood vessel spasm that constricts blood flow to the fingers (hence the numbness) and occurs in five to ten percent of all people. “It’s more common in women and typically triggered by cool temperatures or stress,” Dr. Martinez says. Raynaud’s is chronic, but it’s not a huge health worry unless numbness lasts more than an hour, in which case your fingers are actually imperiled—head to the ER! Stave off a crisis by keeping circulation healthy: Cut out cigarettes and go easy on caffeine, as both constrict blood vessels, and hit the gym regularly to keep your blood pumping.

Discolored Nails
WHAT THEY MEAN: Off-color nails can result from fungus but may also warn of diabetes. “Diabetics’ immune and vascular systems can be impaired, creating an environment that allows bacteria and fungi to flourish,” Dr. Kim says. Look for green discoloration (yikes!) or thick, dark-yellow nails that detach from the bed (double yikes!). Your M.D. can tell you about habits that keep blood sugar in check, such as swapping out processed foods for healthy complex carbs. If there’s fungus, prescription meds can help clear it up; it not, nails might be yellow from dark polish. Applying tooth-whitening products to nails can help.

Short Index Fingers
WHAT THEY MEAN: Women with pointer fingers smaller than their ring fingers may have a heightened risk for osteoarthritis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal disorder that can disrupt fertility. The upside? A lower risk for heart disease. “More exposure to testosterone in utero, which relates to skeletal health, fertility and cardiovascular development, may also create longer ring fingers,” says John Manning, Ph.D., author of The Finger Ratio. “But don’t regard your ratio as a definite indicator of risks—or immunity to them.” Controlling your weight protects your joints, fertility and heart, regardless of finger length. Aim for a body-mass index between 18.5 and 25 (calculate yours at Self.com.)

 

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