Alt-Health: The World at Your Fingertips

Before lab tests, before xrays and even before thermometers, people got sick, and someone had to figure out what was wrong with them. Diagnostics have always been an important step in healing. So how did people do it in days of yore?

The earliest records of medicine are from the Ancient Egyptians. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is probably the earliest textbook on surgery; parts of it date from as early as 3000 BC. Diagnostics at the time were limited to observation and perhaps it was just as well. When tested in modern laboratories, at least 72% of 260 prescription formulas had no known curative elements, and many contained animal dung that carried bacteria likely to cause secondary infections.

Traditional Chinese Medicine developed further methods; upon entering a doctor’s office the first request of a patient was “stick out your tongue and give me your wrist.” Physicians could tell a great deal about health by observing the tongue’s surface and taking the pulses. Their claims of accuracy have been challenged as fraud by modern doctors, but proponents of TCM decry such allegations, pointing out that researchers erroneously isolated single methods of testing for their studies, and skilled TCM physicians were known to practice a complex combination of procedures.

Even our modern testing methods, of which there is a vast array, can be astonishingly inaccurate. Opinions and findings vary, but conservative estimates give a diagnostic accuracy rate of 55% for the easiest cases, and a mere 6% for the hardest cases. This brings diagnostic accuracy to an average of 31% overall. The real kicker is that the cost of those tests can bankrupt a patient before treatments even start, and doctors often order tests and recommend procedures that are completely unnecessary. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office claims that up to 30% of the health care in the US is uncalled for.

This brings me to a fascinating fact that I discovered while browsing through random YouTube videos: Your own fingernails can rival the accuracy of many medical tests when it comes to underlying health problems. I am skeptical of any information that streams alongside silly cat videos, so I did some checking and was shocked to discover that the Mayo Clinic, along with a number of other reliable sources, backed up this claim.

Horizontal ridges, medically termed as “Beau’s Lines,” are usually the result of direct trauma to the finger, but when they are consistent across both hands, a serious illness is indicated. Why? Your body is struggling with bigger problems, so any less essential issues such as nail growth are put on hold. Beau’s lines may indicate psoriasis, diabetes, circulatory disease, or severe zinc deficiency. Another type of horizontal line is known as “Mees’ lines.” These horizontal discolorations can be due to arsenic poisoning, Hodgkin’s disease, malaria, leprosy, or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Spoon shaped nails that curve upward at the edges, forming a shallow cup in the center, may be a sign of iron-deficiency anemia, excess iron absorption, heart disease or hypothyroidism.

“Terry’s Nails,” first described by Dr. Richard Terry in 1954, is a condition characterized by nails lacking a white half moon at the base and pale throughout, with a band of slightly darker pigment across the top of the nail bed. He found it to be associated with hepatic cirrhosis. In some cases, TN is a natural result of aging, but it has also been associated with systemic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic renal failure and vascular disease.

Clubbing is a phenomena in which fingertips become enlarged and the nail tip curves downward. It can be a sign of low oxygen in the blood or an indication of lung disease. It can also be related to liver or kidney disease, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and AIDS.

Brittle nails, discolored nails, cracking or splitting nails? Lifestyle factors may play a role. If you constantly immerse your hands in water, use nail polish remover or are exposed to chemicals, it can take a toll. But cracking and splitting can also be caused by fungal infection or thyroid disease, and brittle nails can be a sign of vitamin A, C or biotin deficiency.

None of these symptoms can be taken as a final diagnosis, but there is enough medical evidence behind them to prompt a visit to the doctor. Physicians of yore were rumored to have many such methods of ferreting out disease. In 1973, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter by Dr. Sanders T. Frank that reported that “a diagonal earlobe crease is a potential indicator of coronary artery disease.” This crease, later called “Frank’s sign,” became a standard for gauging potential heart problems.

In short, many of the clues to our health are hiding in plain sight. Is observation a replacement for medical tests? No. But your body nearly always lets you know when something is wrong. When it comes to your health, your own awareness is always your best first line of defense.

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