From poor circulation to kidney disease, changes in the way your hands look and feel could be a sign of a range of illnesses.
When you see your doctor, do they take a moment to examine your hands? They should: Your hands—from the appearance of your nails to spots on your skin—may hold valuable clues to your overall health. Here are seven telltale signs your doctor may see in your hands and what they could potentially be trying to tell you.
- Trembling: It’s normal for people’s hands to shake slightly, but if you have an obvious tremor, get your doctor to take a look. The explanation for involuntary shaking could be as simple as drinking too much caffeine that day. Slight shakes can also be a side effect of an over-the-counter decongestant. Or, an otherwise unexplained tremble could be an early warning sign of a neurological disorder like Parkinson’s disease. “Some people have a genetic condition called familial or essential tremor that starts a little later in life,” says Susan Besser, MD, a family medicine practitioner with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. There are also other neurologic conditions that trigger tremors, says Dr. Besser, including multiple sclerosis or stroke. Uncontrolled diabetes or kidney disease could also make your hands tremble, too.
- Cracked or brittle nails: Although the most common and likely cause of cracked nails is excessively dry skin, “cracked skin under your nails could also indicate a chronic condition like eczema or psoriasis,” says Dr. Besser. This should prompt you to see a dermatologist.
- Pitted or discolored nails: Nail pitting, characterized by small holes in the smooth surface of the fingernails, may be caused by other conditions like psoriasis or eczema. Discolored nails may be a sign of a vitamin deficiency or a fungal infection. Your doctor may also want to consider a chronic condition such as heart or lung disease, which cause poor circulation to your extremities, and could in turn change the look of your nails and nail beds, says Dr. Besser.
- Skin spots: Also known as age or sun spots, skin spots occur thanks to lifelong sun exposure—and your hands get plenty of that! Though not all sun spots will develop into melanoma or skin cancer, they should serve as a warning sign and push you to protect your skin from further damage. Tell your doctor if any spots have changed recently, such as if they’ve gotten bigger or changed in color or texture.
- Bluish/purple skin tone: A condition called Raynaud’s syndrome—caused by the temporary closing-off of blood vessels—leads to poor oxygen delivery to your extremities, usually fingers and toes. In Raynaud’s, “the affected areas turn blue, then white, then red when the vessels open back up,” says Dr. Besser. Let your doctor know if you have ever experienced any of these symptoms.
- Bumpy or misshapen knuckles: Swollen fingers and misshapen joints are classic signs of arthritis, an umbrella term for over 100 different disorders. Although there is no cure for arthritis, treatments can improve mobility and reduce pain, so talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may be having.
- A longer-than-typical ring finger: This may be a risk factor for developing osteoarthritis. A 2014 study in the journal Rheumatology that measured finger sizes in people and then followed their health outcomes over a decade found that lower index-to-ring finger ratio (that is, a longer ring finger) indicated a higher incidence of knee osteoarthritis requiring knee-replacement surgery.