Onychphagia And The Neurology Of Nail Biting
In Greek “Onycho” means fingernail or toenail and “phagia” is to eat or consume. Hence, “Onychphagia,” the clinical name for nail biting as a habit, which affects nearly 45 percent of adolescents. It may seem minor in comparison to addictions such as the excessive consumption of drugs or alcohol, but the biting of the nails can trigger oral herpes, dental problems like gingivitis, viral infections and studies have even shown loss of IQ due to the consumption of lead. A scene in the 1998 movie “Great Expectations” shows an interaction between a convict played by Robert De Niro and a young boy who gets temporarily captured into aiding the escaped man. As the pressures of the moment set in for the boy, he nervously begins biting his nails. When the criminal notices what his acquaintance is doing he takes it upon himself to teach the kid a lesson. “You bite your nails? It’s a bad habit. People always tell you that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Bullshit it’s your hands, that’s the sign of a gentleman.” Whether or not De Niro’s character is correct in his statement, the young boy portrays a realistic image of a high-risk, high-anxiety circumstance, which are factors involved in triggering onychphagia. This mild form of self-mutilation, also related to the picking and biting of the skin and the pulling out of the hair, can be acquired as a child, making it extremely difficult to break the habit. Dr. Fred Penzel, who studies nail biting, skin picking and other related diseases, has theorized these to be compulsive disorders found in many different forms. He refers to the newly coined phrase “Body-focused Repetitive Behaviors” to include the large spectrum of other obsessive disorders. “Some have theorized that there may be that the same out-of-control grooming mechanism in the brain underlies them all,” said Penzel who also has his own applicable ideas. “My own theory is that there may be some type of dysfunction of a brain mechanism that regulates levels of stimulation within the central nervous system, and that these behaviors represent an attempt to control these internal stimulation levels externally.” Pezel talks about nail biters and pickers needing to fulfill some kind of urge that their repetitive actions fulfill. “People seem to pull, pick, or bite when they are either overstimulated (due to stress or excitement) or understimulated (due to boredom or inactivity),” described Pezel who has written two books on the subject. He goes on to compare the obsession to animal’s instinctive behaviors. “Many similar behaviors can be observed in animals who are kept in confined or unstimulating environments, or who live in stressful conditions.” “Habit Reversal Training (HRT),” developed in the 1970’s by psychologists Nathan Azrin and Gregory Nunn for treating nervous habits, is the general trend in curing the biting addiction. Though the number of steps in the process sometimes varies, it generally consists of awareness, relaxation training and response, management and practice. HRT is also used for other cognitive behaviors such as tics, Tourett’s syndrome and thumb sucking. Dr. Andrew Weil describes a unique recovery method, involving a rubber band around the wrist, in his answer about remedies to a concerned biter on his “vitamin advisor” website. “The idea is to snap the rubber band hard enough to make it sting the second you start the movement that leads to biting your nails, such as running your thumb along the edges of your nails to decide which one to bite.” Other cures include medication, unpleasant tasting nail polish, and a mouth guard that makes biting virtually impossible. However, Weil advises doing it the natural way. “My recommendation would be to try hypnotherapy as well as relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, biofeedback, or yoga, for example, to reduce underlying stress.” In September of 2007, in Venlo, Netherlands, a center opened specifically for people with onychphagia. Alain-Raymond van Abbe, director of the Institute for Pathological Onychophagy uses a technique that enables the use of their hands, but at the same time patients are not able to bite their nails. The magical-seeming method is 98 percent effective if actively used for four weeks. Other forms of therapy such as counseling, is also available at the institute.