Finger Pain & Nail Biting
November 3, 2009 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Fingernail Filter: I know its been asked many times how to quit this compulsion. While that is a concern of mine, I need to know what to do to alleviate pain in the fingers from excessive fingernail biting. What do you recommend?

I've heard people say that chewing fingernails is a bad habit, and can be stopped with strong will. I don't subscribe to that, in that I've tried so hard to stop. When I'm in the car during my hour commute, I can't help but chew. I do it beyond the point of pain, and continue. I have horrible nails, and the skin under them is torn up and bloody. I've tried clipping my nails so close down, and it makes no difference. I've tried the bad tasting fingernail polish and found it didn't deter me.

I've got so much pain in my fingertips today because I bit them way down. How can I relive the pain?

Also, what extreme remedies can you recommend for stopping this horrible compulsion?
posted by Draccy to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
My wife calls her fingers the bloody stumps from doing exactly what you describe. She uses an inordinate amount of Neosporin on her fingers to ease the pain and help the recovery.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:53 PM on November 3, 2009

Okay, this is going to be really weird sounding, and honestly, admitting stuff like this makes me wish we could anon post comments.

But, moving forward - I had a good friend who told me that he respected my opinion of him, and when I had mentioned offhandedly how gross it was that he chewed his nails, it had hit home to him. He mentioned that he would think about my disgust when he started to absentmindedly chew on his fingernails and that eventually lead him to ask me to berate him endlessly every time I saw him bite his nails or if his fingers looked disgusting and chewed up. I was a little unsure at first, but then I realized actually how absolutely disgusting and downright nasty it is to chew on your nails/put your hands in your mouth and agreed. He would call me if he needed to be "talked down" and I would simply tell him the truth: chewing your nails is a disgusting and filthy habit and no one will take you seriously if your hands look like that of a four year old.

After a few months of constant ridicule, it finally sank in, and he actually quit chewing his nails. And I still think it is a disgusting and immature habit. So, find someone whose opinion you value, and have them tell you (honestly) their opinion of you chewing your nasty and disgusting fingernails.
posted by banannafish at 4:56 PM on November 3, 2009

No idea how to relieve the pain from today's chew session. Remember it, though -- not that that the promise of pain ever helped me quit chewing my nails beyond the point where they started to bleed. What did help me curb the nasty habit was to allow myself to chew all but one nail. At first I couldn't resist it, but eventually I was able to catch myself every time and quit that one nail. Then I learned that using a nice file to maintain it was much better than nail clippers, because clippers left little jagged edges that were like teeth magnets. Then I quit chewing the nails on that whole hand, but allowed myself to go to town on the other hand. Honestly, once the nails on one hand started getting long enough that I could file them, and they sstarted to look presentable and stopped hurting all the time, it was easy to quit chewing the other hand. I still revert every now and then if I'm under a lot of stress, but my long-time habit pretty much disappeared with a gradual approach. Nothing else ever worked for me, and I had tried just about everything. Good luck.
posted by Balonious Assault at 5:07 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

The only thing that finally helped me to stop is painting my nails with clear "strengthening" nail polish-- 2 or more coats. Then, whenever I get the urge to bite, I scrape the polish off with my teeth... it's gross but no grosser than nail biting itself. I remove what's left of the nail polish and reapply nightly or as needed. Gradually you'll get out of the habit and your nails will be so beautiful you won't want to bite them. :)
posted by jschu at 5:09 PM on November 3, 2009

Not sure if this is helpful, but: I used to chew and tear at my fingernails until they were tearing into the nail bed. I finally re-trained myself about 15 years ago to not chew them all the way down. I still allowed myself to chew on them, so I didn't have to find the power to stop altogether. I just had to find the will to stop going all the way.

Now that I think about it (and it's kind of unsavory, but oh well), a big part of the re-training was allowing myself to put my nails in my mouth and kind of manipulate them with my teeth, but I stopped actually biting into them. I found something very satisfying (and gross, yes) about flipping the white of your nail over on itself. But to get to that point I had to let them grow.

Man, I keep thinking of new, weird things about this: When I would get a nail long enough that I could flip it back, I remember that it would create a crease in the nail, which would make it easily removed (read as: quickly chewed off) without straying too far down.

I also got in the habit of having a nail file with me -- I remember one thing that enabled my habit was the raggedness of a recently-chewed nail. There's an OCD thing about wanting to smooth it out, but doing it with your teeth will never work (I even have some grooves in my front teeth from filing my nails with them.) Smoothing it out with a file gave me less to grab on to when I started playing with my nails.
posted by crickets at 5:10 PM on November 3, 2009

I'd suggest positive reinforcement to change an ingrained behavior. I am a cuticle nibbler . . .but getting regular manicures really has modified that urge. It is very nice to have cared for fingernails instead of chewed ones. And there is nothing wrong with men getting manicures.
posted by bearwife at 5:13 PM on November 3, 2009

I'm currently in the process of out-growing nail biting/picking (because real adults don't bite their nails!) Here are the three things I'm doing:

1. Get a nail brush and clean your nails every morning. Clean nails means there's no little bits of dirt that I might try and pick out.

2. Rub a moisturiser/ointment into them in the morning. You're less likely to want the taste of moisturiser in your mouth. This'll help you heal the torn skin too. (I'm phasing this out now that torn skin is becoming a thing of the past).

3. Nail files. Everywhere. Work, home, bed, couch. I even keep one snapped in half inside my wallet. If I go to bite my nails I'll file them instead. For someone who's bitten their nails their whole life it feels damn unnatural to have even slightly long nails. Having well filed nails is MUCH nicer than having bitten and bloody nails.
posted by abstractdiode at 5:14 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

dfriedman: from the OP - I've tried the bad tasting fingernail polish and found it didn't deter me.

i feel your pain. i have the same habit, and even though i know it's disgusting and i want to stop, i haven't been able to yet. when my fingers are hurting and bloody, i find it helps to put bandages around the tips to soften them. the bandages also provide a little buffer between my fingers and hard surfaces that make the pain worse.

ugh. i wish i had better advice for you on how to stop. i never thought i'd still have the habit at 22...
posted by gursky at 5:15 PM on November 3, 2009

nail files - get a pile, and have them around everywhere you may chew your nails. Instead of biting, gently file - it smooths out the roughness that often triggers biting, and gives you something to do instead. This really works - read the second question here for more info. You can also use the fine side of a nail file to smooth the rough skin around the nail, to keep you from picking at that too. Using hand cream will help too, as will chapstick on the cuticles.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:15 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have a similar problem, but I pick my cuticles instead. I like using an antibiotic + pain reliever cream, like this one (except I usually get the generic). The ointment grosses me out, but the cream isn't so bad. It helps keep the germs out, and does help with some (but not all!) of the ouch. The pain is different from when my nails are too short, though, so I'm not sure it would work. The least it could do is help keep some of those germs out though.
posted by iliketolaughalot at 5:18 PM on November 3, 2009

wear gloves when driving (the thin leather ones are fun). Wear gloves when working in the kitchen (latex ones are cheap, and it's just like being in a restaurant). Wear gloves when doing anything that doesn't require you to have bare skin showing on your hands. If you are at home for the weekend, put on some of those cheapo little winter gloves they sell at target, the ones that don't really keep your hands that much warmer, but will prevent you from biting your nails.

The more you can physically prevent yourself from getting to them, the harder it is to bite them, and you won't be able to do it absent mindedly.
posted by markblasco at 5:19 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't have any helpful advice, because I could've posted this exact question myself. I do feel a little better knowing I'm not the only one out there who's habit is just as bad, however.

The *only* time I've managed to quit was for about a 6 month period when I started wearing fake nails. It looked better, but the glue on chewed up cuticles was not my best idea either.
posted by cgg at 5:22 PM on November 3, 2009

I use this when mine get too bad.
posted by govtdrone at 5:27 PM on November 3, 2009

Seconding gursky - put some bandaids on. When they hurt, you want to pick at them more, which doesn't help anything. Plus, the buffer is nice when your fingers come into contact with things.

On a larger scale, although you didn't ask for this advice, banannafish's answer is the closest to what I'm currently trying. I told my mom to ask to see my nails every time I go to my parent's house (usually once/week). After a few weeks of seeing her "I'm disappointed in you" face when I held out my hands, I've been getting better. Plus, it's fun to show off...i.e. "I know my right hand's bad, but look at these two nails on my left! Aren't they great!"

Good luck!
posted by JannaK at 5:35 PM on November 3, 2009

I made a deal with myself when it got bad: I can bite my pinky nail and my thumb nail, but no others.
posted by plinth at 5:40 PM on November 3, 2009

Know what cured me? TMJ caused by nail biting. Don't keep doing it. TMJ SUCKS.
posted by nosila at 6:05 PM on November 3, 2009

I made a deal with myself when it got bad: I can bite my pinky nail and my thumb nail, but no others.

DON'T do what I did and bite down your thumbnails. I had a really embarrassing moment where I couldn't even pick up dropped coins because my thumbnails were so miserably short. Choose a less useful fingernail to maul.
posted by jschu at 6:07 PM on November 3, 2009

I have a similar problem, but I pick my cuticles instead

the nail file method works with cuticles too - though you may want to get a cuticle stone instead, as it's a little softer on the skin. I had a friend who picked at her cuticles for years, and I told her to file them for years - she always said "it won't work, I'll do it anyway" Finally I gave her a cuticle stone, insisted she try it, and now her hands are lovely.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:29 PM on November 3, 2009

Best answer: Interestingly, I see this more often than not in clients who say this runs in their family. That begs the question about a genetic component. But that's for another thread.

1. You should continue to paint your nails with a thumbsucking/nailbiting solution or clear nail polish. Even if you think it doesn't help, painting the nails will remind you that it's something you must deal with.

2. Do you find the biting usually worsens when you are tense? Watching television? At the movies? Begin to pay attention to the triggers and know what brings on the sessions of chewing and picking until they bleed. Knowing the triggers is the first step to stopping.

3. Silly Putty. Seriously! If, for example, you find your worst time to bite is while you watch TV, keep some Silly Putty by your favorite chair and play with it every which way all through the movie or whatever. It is a distraction and serves the same purpose to alleviate the need to manipulate your hands and fingers. Some use Play Doh in the same way. Give it a try.

4. There are anti-nailbiting self-hypnosis audio tapes and discs you can listen to. Some are subliminal and may have soothing music as a background. I have no opinion on how effective the subliminal versions work, but whatever works, right?

5. Learn methods of Instant Calm. Meditation, prayer, call it what you want. But learn methods that involve relaxing your muscles, breathing exercises and thoughts of calm and peace (whatever you perceive that to be). When you feel the need to bite and chew come over you, you will then be equipped with something to relax the anxiety that the nailbiting is probably only a symptom of. This can be very effective if you commit yourself for the long haul to learning methods to bring about Instant Calm.

Ending a habit like this is extremely difficult. Unlike some of the ideas above, I have never found shame and guilt to be effective with anything except making yourself feel even worse. There are people in their sixties and seventies who were still biting their nails - without a day of peace - for as long as they can remember, who really do overcome this and it's almost always by way of dealing with the underlying anxiety. I hope one or all of the above might be of some help.

Good luck!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 6:41 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

So far, the liquid bandage stuff has proven the best nail-biting cure for Mr. Idiotfactory. It water-proofs, protects, disinfects, and numbs pain. We have also tried psychology tricks but that wasn't effective since he wasn't even aware when he was chewing. Pepper nail-biting goop didn't work either because it made fingernails taste more like buffalo wings (it was delicious!).
posted by idiotfactory at 6:51 PM on November 3, 2009

I am a reformed nail biter. I used to bite them down to the nail beds and pick and bite my cuticles on top of that. My hands looked disgusting and hurt all the time. I just recently quit biting them and have discovered that my hands really are kind of nice looking after all when they're not chewed up and bloody.

For the pain, there's not a bunch you can do about it initially other than not biting your nails so that they can heal, while using Neosporin and bandaging up the bloody parts. If you can't stop it, cover your hands. When I quit biting my nails, I used a ton of moisturizer and wore gloves all the time like someone mentioned above. Even at work. I had to not care if people thought I was a weirdo, but if anyone asked, I would just tell them I was trying to quit biting my nails and they mostly thought that was awesome after I explained it.

Burt's Bees sells a pouch filled with hand creams and things like that called the Hand Repair kit. It even comes with a little pair of cotton gloves that you can wear after slathering your hands in the different products. I really like this stuff, and the added bonus is that it tastes terrible and is somewhat greasy and will probably give you a zit if you put it on and then touch your face a lot with it on. I also kept the millions of nail files and a buffer and a pair of nail scissors and a cuticle trimmer on me in a little pouch all the time. Because if they got all ragged, I couldn't help myself from trying to chew them again.

It's a hard habit to quit, but not impossible. It takes a good deal of mindfulness in order to figure out why and when you do it, and then to make the conscious effort to not do it.

If nothing, remember that it's flu season now, and keeping your hands out of your mouth will help you not pick up all those germs, and if you're sick you sort of owe it to people not to spread more germs around the same way. Also, thinking about the sheer amount of disgusting things that end up under your nails can be a good deterrent.

Even as a nail biter, I always noticed other people's hands when they did it, too. There's no nice way to say it, bitten up nails look pretty disgusting. I'm so happy that I stopped doing it. It's really liberating not to have to self-consciously hide your hands all the time. It's also great not to have sore hands constantly. There's nothing magical about stopping it, like any other bad habit. It just takes some work.
posted by howrobotsaremade at 7:01 PM on November 3, 2009

Nail files nail file nail files. My absolute worse non-stress trigger for nailbiting was (mostly was) rough, ragged nail edges left over from biting. Other thoughts:

-Bandaids help with bumping bitten fingers, and prevent chewing on the worst-damaged fingers. Neosporin is another combination healer/biting inhibitor.

-Switching habits to something less damaging is much easier than stopping entirely and expecting the nervous energy to evaporate. Filing itself actually is satisfying enough as a 'picking' habit for me. Cleaning under nails is also good. Also if your nailbiting comes from anxiety, it's good to be aware of where you're channeling it as you move away from chewing on your nails.

- My other favorite replacement habit: is your hair long enough to make (tiny) braids? Stash a few in an inconspicuous section of your hair and then work on unraveling them (this can probably be done with one hand in the car!)
posted by heyforfour at 7:29 PM on November 3, 2009

For relieving the pain, I'm seconding the above post which mentioned Neosporin, or another antibiotic ointment. A liquid such as CureChrome (the successor to mercurochrome) also works well for me. Why this works is not clear to me, since biting the finger doesn't necessarily cause an immediate infection that would need such treatment. Nevertheless, these products seem to work on fingernail pain. Best of luck.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:17 PM on November 3, 2009

Neosporin for the pain.

I bite because they need to be smooth, and once it starts getting the least bit long it interferes with things, catches on things, and are so freaking itchy underneath the nails that I itch it with my teeth and then start biting. I chew off the skin to either side of the nail too.

I was able to (mostly) stop for my wedding, but I'm doing it again. I got some supremely bad-tasting stuff that really shocks my mouth with its terrible ickiness, and it's helped. I did the gradual step-down of 'allowed' fingers as well, as someone mentioned above, and keeping clippers with me always has helped too.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:10 PM on November 3, 2009

Extreme remedy: orthodontia. I used to bite my nails pretty obsessively (but not to the point of pain), but when I got orthodontics, it moved my teeth around enough so that I could no longer satisfyingly gnaw on my nails.
posted by that girl at 11:44 PM on November 3, 2009

Paxil. Or cigarettes.
posted by davidmsc at 1:01 AM on November 4, 2009

Get married. My husband was a horrible nail-biter. I had never seen anything like it - he chewed them well down into the nail beds, and it looked so awful and painful. Then we started planning the wedding, and I pointed out to him that there would likely be pictures taken of our hands with the rings on, or holding hands, and the possibility of someone taking pictures of his hands like that was a real inspiration.

I think chewing gum helps him. Also, the nail files mentioned above. He had previously just tried to cut them with clippers, but that just left ragged edges and pointy bits that were irresistible. Using a file solved that. So yeah, it took a ton of willpower, but now that his nails are grown out and he knows how to maintain them, he hasn't gone back to biting them yet.
posted by thejanna at 6:31 AM on November 4, 2009

Nail biting is one of the main reasons I took up knitting. I simply *have* to be doing something with my hands and cannot sit passively, listen and watch without having an activity to focus my concentration. Knitting works where I can do it, but in places where it's unacceptable (i.e. work meetings) I still end up biting a bit.
posted by Kurichina at 8:09 AM on November 4, 2009

For the pain: Weleda Wound Care. It works incredibly well for this purpose, and it stops the pain practically instantly.

To Stop biting: Apply nail strengthening polish. Because you apply an extra coat daily, it helps reinforce a healthier attitude toward your nails.

Also, it really helps to use a soft nail file to deal with sharp, catchy bits. Use it often.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 10:38 AM on November 4, 2009

UNTIL I began taking fluoxetine*, the ONLY time in my post-thumbsucking life that my nails weren't like this was the month I worked on an oil well (and they were constantly covered in crude oil filth).

Now, I only bite when hyped on caffeine, or having a really bad day.

However, keeping emory boards everywhere (car, desk, work, bedside, bathroom...) helped considerably. I still do that. 30-year habits reemerge easily...

* I have moved on to more modern anti-anxiety meds. Same success; fewer side effects.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:07 PM on April 19, 2010

* fluoxetine = Prozac(tm)
posted by IAmBroom at 9:08 PM on April 19, 2010

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