A common problem that is
largely dismissed as a minor nuisance, nail biting can be
anything from a bad habit to an outward symptom of a medical
or emotional disorder.
While nail biting and picking seems to be such a common
problem, the psychological and medical research does not
agree on an exact motivation for the action. However it
suggests that nail biting can be the result of stress,
various medical disorders, learned behaviors, or just plain
habit. Treatment depends on the individual, but regular
grooming and care is a big part of successfully kicking nail
biting or picking.
Chronic Onychophagia, the clinical name for nail biting.
It is estimated that:
28% to 33% of children ages 7-10 years old, 44% of
19% to 29% of young adults and 5% of older adults
are nail biters according to Terry M. McClanahan, author of
"Operant Learning Principles Applied to Nail Biting" a 1995
study published in Psychological Reports (see nail biters
The most common instigator of the disorder seems to be
stress or anxiety. Nail and Cuticle/Skin biting may be an
outlet for pent-up emotion, reducing tension for the
individual. Nail Biting is a habitual condition says Ronald
Bronow,M.D., a dermatologist in private practice and
assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University
of California, Los Angeles. It is a common reaction to
stress and boredom.
Nail Biters could also suffer from a poor self-image or
could be punishing themselves for deeper-rooted problems or
anxieties. Basically, nail biting is a rational
substitution of one problem for another. In many instances
nail biting is used as a tension reliever. Any kind of
disharmony as a result of friends, family, work, or school
can trigger the habit.
99% of nail biters have minor problems or a fixed biting
habit. Fewer have a deep emotional problem of which nail
biting is a symptom.
Biters are more often male than female after age 10 (10%
fewer girls bite their nails than boys), and individuals
with a higher rate of intelligence tend to bite their nails
more than those of less intelligence. (Studies seem to
suggest this is because people with a higher rate of
intelligence have more responsibility, which may provide
more anxiety.) Studies show that some relationship between
nail biting and low self esteem may exist. In general
though, nail biting was not shown to lower a biter's
While no studies revealed an overall success rate for curing
nail biters, Rob Dahmes, M.D., suggests that those with a
habit may be harder to cure than those who bite their nails
in relationship to a psychiatric problem. Nail biting that
manifests itself due to emotional trauma can possibly be
cured with medicine and or counseling. Unfortunately, no
treatment exists for bad habits.
Children may pick up a nail biting habit from a babysitter
or family member as a learned behavior.
Attention-Seeking, need for oral gratification, sociopath,
lack of self monitoring or self esteem, obsessive-compulsive
To bite or
not to bite
Whatever the causes damage to the cuticles, roughness on the
free edge, bleeding at the grooves or cuticles and nail
deformities. However, fingernail growth may be accelerated
by as much as 20%, according to a 1980 clinical study by W.B.
Bean, who observed nail growth patterns over many years.
The hand-to-mouth, oral action of biting and picking leaves
some individuals open to medical problems. "Nail biters are
more susceptible to yeast infections of the nail due to
prolonged and increased wetting of the area during the
repeated biting" explains Dr. Bronow. "Damage to the nail
matrix from nail biting causes more extreme problems, such
as infection, ridging, or even permanent nail loss"
Nail Biting can spread bacterial infections and can be
responsible for severe dental problems, including
gingivitis. Oral diseases can also be spread via nail biting
because of the constant contact of fingers with the mouth of
the individual. For instance, oral herpes can actually begin
to grow on the fingers due to the constant contact,
according to medical journals.
Some nail biters start out by trying to bite off a hangnail,
fray or tear in a nail. They try to fix it with their teeth
to make it smooth. The next thing they know a chunk of skin
or nail has been chewed off.
Several techniques with varying
results have been developed to help extreme nail biters:
mild aversion therapy, self-monitoring, habit reversal, and
Mild Aversion therapy is a "physically observable
deterrent" and can be described as something as simple as
snapping a rubber band on the inside of the wrist each time
the nail biting urge occurs.
Using a bitter tasting product that coats the nail or
wearing gloves are other deterrents.
Self-Monitoring requires the nail biter to keep a
written record of all incidences in hopes that awareness of
the problem will stimulate self-control.
Habit reversal is perhaps the most "successful" and
"valid" therapy for nail biting, using a step by step
program that seeks to make the individual aware of her
behavior and then provide a physically competing response to
interfere with it. It combines record keeping, relaxation
training (yoga) and response competition (performing a
physical action when the desire to bite occurs)
What can I do?
Find a salon that will apply
artificial nails for you.
If they tell you to grow some of your nail before you come
back, find another salon. Nail Biters nails are more
difficult to work on but a well trained nail tech will be
able to perform miracles.
If you do not want artificial nails, weekly
manicures are very successful. Having someone pay
attention to your nails every week has many effects. By
having weekly manicures you eliminate all hangnails, rough
nails and anything else that you may find to pick at or
chew. Also like those weight losing programs, having someone
else pay attention to
your progress (in this case your nails) will encourage you
to pay attention to your nails. You must make a full
commitment...maybe by paying for services up front it will
encourage you to stay on the program.