So here’s a new one for me: I woke up yesterday morning with a very sore ring fingernail on my left hand. I felt it as I staggered to the bathroom still ninety percent asleep. I bumped my hand against the wall, “Ow!” What the heck? I rubbed the edge of the nail a few times as I multitasked at the toilet. It really hurt, but I was still sleeping so I stopped paying attention and went back to bed. I woke up and it was even sorer than before. I must have been bitten by a spider, that’s what I actually thought, because I live amongst many, and they have been at war with me and my kids for the last few years (I still like to think I am winning). My finger had that burning feeling, the same way a spider bite feels, itchy and hot. By afternoon, I could barely touch the fingertip or nail. It hurt particularly badly by the thumb-side cuticle. I tried to play guitar; I could barely press down on the frets.
I thought, “That’s it.” I must have cut my finger and the guitar strings have enough migrated skin bacteria that it got into my wound, which I didn’t actually see, but since I was making stuff up… Anyway, I decided to look it up: Are infections common in guitar players? Blam! Up come articles and posting boards all about infected guitar-finger; many had pictures. Yup that looks just like my finger does, so I started reading. All the rocker-posters said the same thing, “I get these often and repeatedly.” Interestingly, I have never gotten an infected finger from playing guitar. I couldn’t even recognize the type of pain I had originally thought was a spider bite. It was that unfamiliar to me, but I guessed that’s what it had to be because I had no recollection of cutting myself and that was the only way I could fathom I had an infection.
An infected finger close to the nail is called a paronychia. The symptoms are a red, swollen, hot finger – pain to the touch. And there can be pus. I had pus. Upon reading the causes of paronychia, it hit me – I had a hangnail on that finger exactly where it hurt most, which I chewed off. It hurt as a hangnail, it hurt when I yanked it off with my teeth, and it hurt for several days afterward. But then the pain went away for several days. It was only when I bumped my hand into the wall on my way to the bathroom did I have pain again in that finger, and boy was it a doozy.
I tried some of the home remedies I found on the web. First was soak in warm water. It had me thinking, “Horsesh*t,” because I do not equate heat with inflammation relief. But to my surprise, it gave me minimal relief. Very minimal, mind you, but it was something. Then I cleaned it with alcohol (reasonable enough), and put Neosporin (not a huge fan but have some lying about) around the infected cuticle. I took ibuprofen. My finger pain eased substantially, and my hope was that maybe (just maybe) the finger would feel better in the morning.
It didn’t. In fact, it hurt even worse the next day. I couldn’t even put my hand in my pocket without wincing. I contacted my surgeon friend thinking I might need antibiotics. He told me to pop by and he could check it out, probably drain it.
Okay, I was happy to take care of my finger right away. I always say we don’t realize how much we use a body part until we have an injury, then we are reminded how much each body part is integral to our sensing and acting within the world. I went for an adjustment first, because I also had a bit of back pain and sciatica, but that’s another story. After my adjustment, I was feeling fine, I headed over to my friend’s place in West Hollywood. It was pretty obvious at this point it was infected. The pus-filled cuticle was expanding and my finger was red and hard. He took a lance and opened it from the top of the infected cuticle. I didn’t feel a thing, nada. Then he put down the lance and took my ring finger with his right hand and used the left to squeeze out the pus. This I felt – it wasn’t pleasant, but seeing the pus ooze out made it less painful in some way. There was an ample amount of pus, not loads, but maybe the size of a ladybug. However, when there was no more to come out, the squeezing hurt. The finger was so swollen that he had to sort of work the entire area, sort of knead it toward the lanced opening. Once that clear fluid (exudate) started to squeeze out, I knew he had gotten everything. And then, of course, it is followed by blood. A quick cleanup and a bandage with a little antibiotic salve, and voilà, my finger felt better and was now on the mend. No antibiotics needed.
This is what it looks like as I write this. Today I have no pain whatsoever in the finger tip, so I was able to play the guitar. I am typing freely now, while the previous night I still had to improvise. There is still a moderately red band around the joint just beneath the cuticle, and the side which was pus-filled, where the original hangnail was, is still a bit sore. However, my friend told me it would be likely cleared up in a few days. Bravo!
It is amazing to me how one hangnail could have such a huge impact, but it’s a good reminder for me (and you!) to not use our mouths to chew on nails, fingers, hangnails, whatever. The bacteria in our saliva do not belong in our wounds. Further, once you open a wound, even with something as small as a hangnail, anything really can infect it, even your own hands, so practice diligent hygiene. I am not suggesting to be a germophobe, but wounds of every sort warrant a little extra caution, that’s just a fact of life. So if you find yourself with a paronychia, from a cut, hangnail, or chomping at your fingernails, you will need it drained. If you can do it yourself with a sterile lance, have at it. But be clean above all – alcohol, antibacterial salve (Neosporin), and a bandage – and you can probably correct the problem yourself. Just be certain if it doesn’t get significantly better almost immediately (like 24 hrs), go to an Urgent Care. If it gets worse, go to the emergency room (ER) immediately.