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What Is Onychophagia?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Onychophagia is simply the technical name doctors use to describe habitual nail biting. Many people have this habit, but for most of them, it never develops into a serious problem. A few people with a tendency to chew their nails will actually start to harm their fingers by doing it too much. These people may not even realize they are injuring themselves until after it’s already happened, and some of them eventually decide to seek psychiatric help for their onychophagia.

People usually start biting their nails either in early childhood or during puberty. Some experts think that people who start doing it as teens are hormonally driven in some way, possibly by stress. Once the habit develops, it can linger for a long time, and a few people keep it up for their entire lives.

Experts aren’t 100-percent sure why develop onychophagia, but there are theories. For example, some people think it is an instinctive thing. This is because the behavior is sometimes also seen in animals. Many experts think this is because the animals have a defective gene that makes them want to groom all the time, and there are some who believe people with onychophagia are simply displaying symptoms of a similar genetic defect. There are theories that this same tendency might also somehow be involved in the mechanism behind obsessive compulsive disorder on a psychological level.

People often bite unconsciously on their nails while nervous or stressed, and they may even do it to an excessive extent, but nothing serious usually happens as a result. These people usually don’t bother to get any real treatment for their onychophagia, and they might go through life with less attractive nails, but that’s about the only real consequence for them.

In other cases, the habit can be a much more serious problem. Some people with nail-biting habits also suffer from uncontrollable compulsions, and they might spend hours chewing the tips of their fingers in an attempt to change the way their nails look or feel. Over time, these people may literally tear wounds into their fingers or cause blistering around the fingertips.

There are many methods of dealing with onychophagia, and experts suggest that some of them work very well. One of the simpler approaches is often to urge patients to take better care of their nails. For example, some people start painting their nails or even getting manicures. This makes people self-conscious about keeping their nails attractive, and they will often train themselves to stop biting without any further assistance. Others use coatings to give their fingers a foul taste, and some who have more serious problems may take medications for obsessive compulsive disorder.

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