Has anyone had onychophagia? (literally: nail-eating)
October 7, 2006 5:57 AM   Subscribe

Will my extreme nailbiting habit leave me with deformed fingernails?

(Forgive me if I am not concise enough; I feel quite hysterical about this and since I am posting anon, I want to supply you with enough information so that you don't need to ask Qs of me.)

I am an extremely pretty girl with a yucky secret... my nails are the ugliest thing I have ever seen!
No-one would know because I do my own acrylics. But this just makes my nail-biting habit worse: because no-one can see my real nails, I chew them all off (then stick the acrylics back on).

I don't get overly emotional about much: I am generally a well-functioning person; however , I have successfully kept myself in denial about my habit this entire year, and since recently forcing myself to FACE it, I've been reduced to feeling really scared, crying, and feeling like it is out of my control.

Background information: Basically, I chewed my nails when I was little. No biggie, lots of kids do. I bought some of that Stop 'N' Grow with my pocket money when I was 11, and kicked the habit. However I developed depression & I guess I took it up again in my late teens... I was embarrassed about it so when I started having boyfriends I got acrylic nails put on, so that I couldn't bite them, and they would have a chance to grow long without my interference.

However I don't know what happened this past year? I started studying & I've had a fair bit of stress this year; actually, that's an understatement, but in short: I've developed severe onychophagia. I'm talking, bitten some nails right down to the CUTICLE.

(I'm really ashamed about this)

It's even affected my sex drive, because even though my partner can't see my real fingernails and has no idea what they are like, I'm so disgusted by my true self that I can't get intimate... I am constantly scared I'm going to get into a car accident or something and my acrylic nails will (naturally) rip off & then I'll wake up in a hospital bed and a loved one will be there to see me and I'll look down and realize my hands are exposed and ugly & I'll have to lie and pretend the car crash "ripped my nails off".

Yes, this is what I think about.

I've read some journal articles on PubMed about this being a form of self-mutilation...also related to Trichotillomania (hair-pulling), a form of OCD. Until I read them, I felt alone about this, just thought I'd taken a dirty habit too far. But I honestly can't imagine that anyone does this worse than I do. I have NEVER known someone who bit their nail right down to the cuticle.

I have managed to come to terms with this & have made a conscious decision to stop. It seems to be working; I have not done it in a week. So I am very proud of that, because it's such a difficult habit to stop. But this is my true question/worry: Will my fingernails be deformed?

My mom, and uncle, both have very strange fingertips, and they both bite their nails daily; however, I don't know how much of their fingertip structure is their genes and how much is caused by long-term nail-biting. I got my dad's genes, in terms of fingers. My brother has my mum's finger genes, so his fingers are odd, but not AS odd, even though he has a mild case of nail-biting.

So what I'm wondering is, could it be possible that my mom's and uncle's fingers are deformed because they have bitten their nails for 40+ years? i.e., if I quit now, before I turn 25 and my cells stop being able to regenerate themselves so readily, should I be alright? Should my nailbeds go back to full form?

Has anyone else known anyone with chronic nail biting, or have you been through this yourself? I'd like to know what chance I have of having my nails go back to normal. I hope to hear some soothing words from people who have been here and stopped (and have normal looking fingers!)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
*Please* consider trying an Inositol Therapy.

Inositol is NOT a drug, but rather an element of the Vitamin-B complex that has proven exceptionally successful in extreme Obsessive-Compulsive cases. It can be delivered in the form of a mixable powder, or the caplets I linked to.

I kid you not, this is what snapped my brother out of his wash-his-hands-til-they-bleed, write-his-name-two-hundred-times severe progression of OCD.

It was *bad* and no regular psychosomatic drugs worked, nor would I suggest something so viable when you're already under stress.

This article outlines skin-picking and nail-biting, while this one specifically details Inositol Therapy when used for OCD.

May I also ask how on earth you can bite your nails that far down without it hurting a great deal?

The Inositol can really help, and has a very high tolerance, thought talk to your doctor if there's a concern, and carefully read through the complete second article before you begin anything.

Good luck. I know OCD can very actively damage otherwise normal individuals from the inside out.
posted by disillusioned at 6:51 AM on October 7, 2006 [4 favorites]

I'm sure other people here will have something useful to say about the psychological side of this, but I'd suggest that you stop worrying over how it relates to stress or depression or your self-image or your genes. Try instead to be practical about it. Just pick one nail and stop biting it. That's not too hard, and you can keep biting the other ones as much as you want. When it grows out, you can paint it the same color as the acrylics. Once that works, you'll be motivated to do another nail, and then another.

I (mostly) got rid of an obsessive 20-year nail-biting habit that way. I was motivated by wanting to play fingerstyle guitar. Maybe you can find something you wished you could do that would require real fingernails? I still bite two of my fingernails, but I often find myself looking at my hands and realizing that those nails have grown out because I just didn't think about biting them off for a few days.

One of my nails still has a striped texture from biting the cuticle too much, but it keeps getting less and less noticeable. So don't be discouraged at first if your nails grow out a bit damaged. They'll improve with time if you take care of them.
posted by fuzz at 7:11 AM on October 7, 2006

Once that works, you'll be motivated to do another nail, and then another.

this is priceless advice, anon. try.
posted by matteo at 7:16 AM on October 7, 2006

I quit around late teens, and the nails eventually looked OK, although it took a while. The nails have a lot of ridges, because the nail beds are damaged and they grow out funny.
If you also chew the cuticles, they take longer to heal and grow back right. Not sure if that left me more susceptible to infection, but I've had blood poisoning (OK, septicemia) twice later in life from biting a cuticle. I never leave home without a Swiss army knife with a tiny pair of scissors in case something needs attention. It's cleaner than your mouth. You do not want surgery to clean up that kind of a mess.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 7:32 AM on October 7, 2006

Definitely what fuzz and disillusioned said.

As to deformity, there are a few possibilities. Do not, whatever you do, think that the first couple of regrowths are what your nails are always going to look like - it's very likely that once you finally manage to stop biting long enough to let your nails grow out, that the resulting nail will be bumpy and weird-looking, because the nail bed is scarred. Don't panic, as with many scars, it's often the case that it will become smoother over time as it regrows and regrows. You may always have weird nails, or weird spots on your nails, but most of it should diminish over time. Eating a good diet will help, and some people feel that biotin and gelatin supplements help with good nail growth.

Another thing you need to keep in mind is that people in general aren't going to notice all that much, and even if they do, they aren't really going to care unless they're a superficial idiot (in which case, why do you care what they think?). I knew someone for years and never noticed that they have a completely deformed nail until it was pointed out to me (and this isn't just a bumpy nail, it's barely recognizable as a nail at all). Unless you are specifically looking (which you are right now, because you're so worried about your own nails), you probably don't notice all kinds of things about people, and we always think that things which are very noticeable to us are as noticeble to other people, when the truth is that most people simply don't notice at all.
posted by biscotti at 7:39 AM on October 7, 2006

Addressing one aspect of your question / solution, urgently: please please reconsider using acrylic or gel nails. The acrylic does not breathe, and your nails WILL become deformed from continued use.

You are already biting down your nails to the quick, covering them with an artificial nailbed that does not breathe will further injure them.

I had gels then acrylics for several years (until july last year) and now my nailbed is injured. My nails have odd ridges in them from the filing and reapplying - and from nails being broken off (I hike, backpack and climb and do other nail-unfriendly sports). There are graver problems as well. I am letting my nails go bare for a few years for this to resolve itself.

The acrylic salon industry is unregulated. Using acrylic nails once in a while is no problem, but using them on a continuous basis is inviting problems.

The best advice I was given was by an esthetitican who was once a nail tech - she gets her nails done once (transparent acrylics with a french finish) then lets them grow out for the next three months. I might just try her advice - in a few years - if ever my nails need to be coated again.

I don't want to derail this thread - if anyone/anon wants to discuss my email is in my profile
posted by seawallrunner at 7:54 AM on October 7, 2006

I bite my nails through childhood and they look okay.

What I've done for the past 7 years to avoid biting: putting acryllic nails on (professionally), so there is nothing to bite.
posted by k8t at 8:25 AM on October 7, 2006

I kid you not, I started biting my nails because I saw Olive Oyl do it in an episode of Popeye when I was a child and I thought the way the nails came off in the cartoon looked cool.

I chewed them down to the nubbins for twenty years until I saw a thread here on how to stop using a rubber band back in February. In a month I was no longer biting my nails.

Half a year hence, my nails do not appear deformed at all after two decades of extreme nail-biting. I am, however, suffering some lingering cuticle problems and hang-nails. The fingers don't look absolutely pretty, but they're not disgusting.
posted by Captaintripps at 9:37 AM on October 7, 2006

If you are having a problem with anxiety and stress, you might try going to see a therapist. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about in going to see one. A therapist might help you find another way to release your stress and anxiety.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:36 AM on October 7, 2006

I've been a nail biter for as long as I can imagine, eating the hell out of the nails, the cuticle, the skin around the nail, etc etc. Two of my fingernails are a little weird. I wouldn't call them deformed, however. they just have weird ridges that you can only feel if you run a finger from one side of the nail to the other. You can't see anything unusual, and no one I've spent time with has EVER noticed them.

in the meantime, I haven't stopped biting my nails, but I try stuff to keep it to a minimum. I wear gloves when I'm driving, which is an activity that always seems to find me with my fingers in my mouth.
posted by modernpoverty at 11:36 AM on October 7, 2006

There are very good reasons to break the acrylic nail habit, for your health and that of those around you.
posted by Scram at 11:37 AM on October 7, 2006

Will my extreme nailbiting habit leave me with deformed fingernails?

It can, yes.
posted by delmoi at 4:24 AM on October 8, 2006

Sorry, I should say I think it can. I'm not certain.
posted by delmoi at 4:25 AM on October 8, 2006

I quit biting my nails when I got braces because I couldn't find the right angle to continue. Silly maybe, but it worked. My nails look okay but not great. The white part (where they leave the bed of your finger) is quite a bit lower than where it would be if I had never bitten my nails.
posted by deborah at 3:45 PM on October 9, 2006

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