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Nail Anatomy

Human nail anatomy chartOur nails are made of keratin and are essentially modified (hardened) skin. Nails serve two purposes: they protect the nail bed and enhance sensation of the fingertip or the tip of the toe. The fingertip (and the tip of the toe) have many nerve endings, which help us get information about objects we touch. The nail acts as a counter force to the fingertip providing additional sensory input when we interact with different objects.

Nail Growth

Nails grow all the time, but the rate of growth slows down with age and poor circulation. Fingernails grow faster than toenails – at a rate of 3mm per month. It takes 6 months for a nail to grow from the root to the free edge. Toenails grow much slower: about 1 mm per month and take 12-18 months to be completely replaced.

Nail Structure

The structure we know of as the nail is divided into six specific parts:

  • the root (matrix) under the skin of the proximinal nail fold,
  • nail bed,
  • nail plate,
  • eponychium (cuticle),
  • perionychium, and
  • hyponychium.

Each of these structures has a specific function, and if disrupted can result in an abnormal appearing nail – a sign of a disorder or disease.

Nail Root

The root of the nail is also known as the germinal matrix. This portion of the nail is actually beneath the skin behind the nail and it extends several millimeters into the finger/toe. The nail root produces most of the volume of the nail plate and the nail bed. This portion of the nail does not have any melanocytes, or melanin producing cells. The edge of the germinal matrix is seen as a white, crescent shaped structure called the lunula.

Nail Bed

The nail bed is part of the nail matrix called the sterile matrix. It extends from the edge of the germinal matrix, or lunula, to the hyponychium (the portion of the epidermis under the free edge of the nail). The nail bed contains blood vessels, nerves, and melanocytes, or melanin-producing cells. As the nail is produced by the root, it streams down along the nail bed, which adds material to the under surface of the nail making it thicker. It is important for normal nail growth that the nail bed be smooth. If it is not, the nail may split or develop grooves that can be cosmetically unappealing, and sometime indicative of a disease.

Nail Plate

The nail plate is the actual nail on the finger or toe. It’s made of translucent keratin. The pink appearance of the nail comes from the blood vessels underneath the nail. The underneath surface of the nail plate has grooves along the length of the nail that help anchor it to the nail bed.

Cuticle

The cuticle of the fingernail is also called the eponychium. The cuticle is situated between the skin of the finger or toe and the nail plate fusing these structures together and providing a waterproof barrier.

Perionychium

The perionicyhium is the skin that overlies the nail plate on its sides. It is also known as the paronychial edge. The perionychium is the site of hangnails, ingrown nails, and an infection of the skin called paronychia.

Hyponychium

The hyponychium is the area between the nail plate and the fingertip. It is the junction between the free edge of the nail and the skin of the fingertip (toe tip).

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