Chronic nail biting could signal a psychological disorder - WDAM - TV 7 - News, Weather and Sports

Chronic nail biters, beware

It's one of the most common nervous habits, but one that can be cause for concern.

About 30 percent of all children and 15 percent of adults are nail biters. But this quirk isn't skin deep -- for some people, it's a sign of a much deeper issue.

With one hand to steer, Debbie Heggen's other fingers are free to gnaw on.

"Once I get started, then it's really hard to stop," Heggen admits.

Her nail biting usually ends with her fingers bleeding.  

Inside her car, she's able to conceal this life-long habit that started in second grade.

As a child, Heggen's parents tried to break her nail biting habit by wrapping black electrical tape around her fingers. 

"Humiliation didn't do one bit of good," Heggen recalls.  

Psychologists say nail biting isn't about manners, but rather one's mental health.

In fact, the American Psychiatric Association classifies nail biting as an impulse control disorder and a sign of underlying anxiety that statistically shows up more often in males.  

"It's really such a private thing that society often stigmatizes, so a lot of people often suffer in silence," says Licensed Psychological Associate Russell Hancock.

Paronychia is the pain of emotional distress or the pain of infection, and it's sometimes caused by chronic nail biting.

Our mouths are teeming with bacteria and once this bacteria is burrowed into the broken skin around the nail, it can form abscesses that have to be lanced and drained.

In other cases, constant chewing permanently damages the nail, teeth and gums.

"There are those that take it to the extreme and cause a lot of anxiety about the condition and around the condition," says Dr. Rhett Brown, who serves as the medical director at Presbyterian Family Medicine-Midtown in Charlotte, N.C. 

Brown is a self-professed nail biter. He recommends you seek help if nail biting is affecting other areas of your life.  

You can start by changing the behavior.

For example, Heggen tries to keep her mind busy in the car if she's bored. She gets weekly manicures to erase imperfections, and she buys bitter-tasting sprays to slather on her nails and skin.

Experts say you should identify the triggers such as people, places or things that motivate you to chew your nails.

Consult with your doctor or a psychologist about any stress and anxiety you feel.

If your child is a nail biter, encourage them to adopt good habits. Scolding them about nail biting can cause them to hide, instead of seeking help. Many children outgrow their tendency to bite their nails.

For now, Heggen is sticking to her professional manicurist to keep her nails looking so good that she won't want to bite them and, hopefully, she will start keeping both hands on the wheel when she's driving!

Additional Information:

Debbie Heggen's nail biting habit started when she was in the second grade. She says she does not feel anxious when she's biting her nails, but it happens most often during meetings or when she is driving. She tried spraying a bitter substance on her nails, but ended up biting the skin instead of the nail. Her 25-year-old son has now picked up on the tick. She often feels guilty, as though her habits have encouraged him to do the same.

According to Russell Hancock, Ph.D., 30 percent of children ages 7-10 bite and it increases for boys as they age. Hancock says scab picking and hair pulling are other associated conditions with similar underlying stress/anxiety issues.

According to Dr. Rhett Brown, it takes 10-14 weeks to replace an old habit with a new one. Brown says nail biters who chew deep into their nail bed can damage the matrix, creating permanent scars on the nail.

The Mayo Clinic suggests: Avoiding triggers such as boredom, finding healthy ways to manage anxiety, keeping nails trimmed or manicured, and keeping your hands and mouth busy (i.e. playing an instrument or chewing gum).

Nail biting often begins in childhood and peaks in adolescence Click to read more.  

Between 28-33 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 10, 44 percent of adolescents, and 19-29 percent of young adults gnaw their fingernails. Click to read more.

Ten to 20 percent of men and women continue biting their nails during adulthood, and it is slightly more prevalent among males. Click to read more.

While many people at some point in their life bite their nails, it's less clear why. Doctors debate whether it's a learned habit, genetics, or a sign of anxiety. Click to read more.

Simple behavioral techniques include: keeping a journal to identify nervous triggers, wearing a loud bracelet, keeping your nails short, getting regular manicures, or painting bitter or spicy liquids on your nails.

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