Pruney Fingers: Causes, Treatments and When to See a Doctor

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Pruney fingers: Causes, Treatments and When to See a Doctor
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Having pruney fingers is a common occurrence after submerging your hands in water for a period of time. Very often, soaking in the bath, washing dishes, or swimming can cause your fingertips to look like shriveled up prunes. However, many people have noticed that their fingers can wrinkle when they are not in water. For example, doctors have discovered that pruney fingers can be linked to blood circulation problems, type 2 diabetes, or being cold.

There have been many theories as to why fingers get pruney in water. In the past, people thought that skin soaked up water causing the outer layer of skin on the hands to swell and become prune-like. Also, it was thought that finger wrinkling occurred because of nerve damage. However, research into the reasons for pruney fingers has shown that nerve damage or soaking up water isn’t to blame for skin wrinkling on the hands.

In this article, you will learn about the various causes of pruney fingers and why certain conditions can cause skin on your fingertips to wrinkle without water. You will also find out how to treat fingertips that have become prune-like.

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What are Pruney Fingers and Winkled Fingertips?

The term pruney fingers is used to describe the look of fingers when they take on a shriveled look. Scientists have come up with the answer as to why certain circumstances cause wrinkles to form on the tips of fingers and palms.

According to the journal Clinical Autonomic Research, skin wrinkling is connected to your autonomic nervous system. Researchers have found that under some conditions, nerves cause blood vessels to constrict in the hand and this causes a pattern or ridges and valleys on the fingertips. This is called vasoconstriction. Scientists have found that this phenomenon can happen anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes after immersing hands in water.1

The journal Muscle Nerve published a study showing that immersing skin in water is a simple way to test for proper nerve function. Scientists discovered that a reduction in blood flow under the skin causes temporary wrinkling, and the fingers and toes are affected the most.2

Why do fingers get pruney in the water?

The fact that fingers prune when wet has led some researchers to examine the purpose of fingertip skin wrinkling in water.

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A study from 2011 theorized that finger wrinkling helps to grip objects in water. Dr. Mark Changizi, a theoretical cognitive scientist, said that wrinkly fingers provide grip to wet objects in the same way that tire tread is needed to help vehicles grip the road in wet conditions. It was seen that the ridges that appear on fingertips when they have been submerged in water form a drainage system and help to displace water.3

However, in 2014 a group of researchers carried out similar experiments to find out why fingers prune in water. This time the studies were inconclusive and the researchers concluded that finger skin wrinkling didn’t have any effect on gripping wet objects. It was found that it didn’t matter if fingers were prune-like or not when handling wet objects.4

Therefore, scientists don’t fully know the reasons why fingers become wrinkled in water. But, as we all know, most of us have pruney fingers after soaking in the bath.

Are pruney fingers a sign of nerve damage?

It is a common myth that pruney or wrinkled fingers are a sign of nerve damage. The British Medical Journal reported that if any nerves in the hand are damaged and don’t function, fingers don’t prune in water. In fact, researchers found that if nerves to one or two fingers are damaged, those fingers stay smooth in water while the other fingers get pruney in water.

Let’s look at the reasons for this phenomenon and what causes fingers to become wrinkly.

Causes of Pruney Fingers and Winkled Fingertips

There are a number of reasons why your fingers can shrivel up like an old prune when you soak in the bath or have another underlying medical condition.

Water Immersion

The most common reason for getting pruney fingers is immersing your hands in water for a period of time. The reason for this is that water seems to change the outer layer of skin and affects the nerve fibers in the hand.

The journal Clinical Autonomic Research stated that the change in the hand’s nerve fibers are caused as a small amount of water gets into the sweat ducts on your hands. This process sends signals to the nervous system and causes blood vessels to constrict. This causes small ridges to appear on the fingertips as the skin shrinks inward.1

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Sweating

Sweating is one common reason why fingers can prune without being submerged in water. Most people sweat when they are in a hot environment, exercise, or are under stress. Some people suffer from hyperhidrosis which is abnormally excessive sweating that usually affects the hands, feet, underarms or face.15

A rare condition that is related to sweating is aquagenic wrinkling of the palms that often occurs in patients with cystic fibrosis or carriers of the cystic fibrosis gene. According to dermatologist Dr. Mathew Ludgate, the sweating in aquagenic wrinkling causes a salt imbalance in the skin cells. This results in water retention in some parts of the fingers and water loss in other parts. In the end, you are left with pruney, wrinkly fingers from sweating.6

Dehydration

One of the signs of dehydration could be that your fingertips look like prunes and may become itchy or tingle.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Hanes on WebMD, dehydration could cause fingers to look wrinkly without them being immersed in water. One way to tell if dehydration is causing your finger to prune when they’re not wet is to pinch some skin on the back of your hand. If your body is lacking water then the skin will keep the pinched look for a few seconds.7

Dehydration can have a negative impact on your health. One way to help keep yourself well hydrated and prevent wrinkly skin on your hands and face is to drink plenty of fluids. One way of keeping yourself hydrated is to drink flavored water. These delicious fruit-infused drinks will also help detox your system naturally and assist in weight loss.

Cold temperature

If you have been in cold temperatures, you may notice that you develop wrinkled pruney fingertips. The cold can affect your blood circulation and make your fingers shriveled and wrinkly.

Dr. Fedrick Wigley from Johns Hopkins University says that cold can affect people with Raynaud phenomenon, which is a disorder that affects blood vessels, mostly in the fingers and toes. Dr. Wigley says that cold and emotional stress can reduce blood flow to the fingers. Your fingers may also look white in color because of a lack of blood flow to the skin.8

The cold can also make your fingertips wrinkle without being in water and also turn a bluish color. According to Dr. Colin Tidy on Patient.info, cold exposure can cause cyanosis which causes skin to become discolored. The discoloration happens as cold causes more deoxygenated hemoglobin blood cells to circulate to your fingers.9 The cold also causes constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) which has been associated with pruney fingers.

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Blood circulation

If you have poor blood circulation, you may find that your fingers wrinkle frequently after being in water for a long time or even without water. Because poor blood flow often affects your extremities, i.e. your fingers and toes, signs of poor circulation can manifest themselves there.

Regarding the link between blood circulation and wrinkling, the journal Muscle & Nerve reported that wrinkling in various areas of your body is accompanied by a reduction in blood flow. In fact, a simple test for testing blood circulation effectiveness is done by immersing a person’s hands in water and observing skin wrinkling.2

There are ways to improve blood circulation in your body, and you can read about them in my article “How to Improve Blood Circulation Naturally (Research Based)“.

Acanthosis nigricans

Pruned hands without water could be a sign of an underlying medical condition that causes acanthosis nigricans. This skin condition is also associated with thickened patches of brown-colored skin, skin tags, and itchy skin.

According to Dr. Jenny Chung from Auckland City Hospital, a malignant type of acanthosis nigricans can affect the palms and fingers of the hand. This can cause ridges and deep grooves on the underside of the fingers and palms.10 Acanthosis nigricans generally affects people who are overweight and have built up insulin resistance.11

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a reason that your fingers prune and your fingertips become wrinkly without being in water. Diabetes often affects the skin and can cause a number of skin complaints including all over body itching and being prone to bacterial and fungal infections. In some cases, diabetes can be to blame for prune-like skin on your fingertips that feel thick and rough.

Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Dr. Minesh Khatri, says that diabetic patients often show signs of acanthosis nigricans. This condition can cause a wrinkled effect on your fingers and also cause thickened patches of dark skin in skin folds.12

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Dr. Khatri says that acanthosis nigricans can be one of the early signs of diabetes because it is caused by insulin resistance. Although there is no cure for the rough patches of grooved skin, losing weight may help to reduce your symptoms. It is also important to make positive lifestyle changes to help prevent type 2 diabetes. If you already have diabetes, talk to your primary healthcare provider about how to control symptoms of diabetes through diet or medication.

Excessive fluid retention

Excessive fluid retention can be a reason why your fingers look pruney and you notice small depressions in your fingertips. These changes in the skin of your fingers can be caused when an abnormal accumulation of clear, watery fluid in your fingers, hands, and feet build up. This is a condition called lymphedema.

According to certified lymphedema therapist Dr. Andrea Branas, lymphedema often starts by mild swelling in the hands and feet. This can cause the skin on the affected area to look like it has indentations that stay there after pressing the skin.13

Your legs are often affected and gravity can cause fluid to collect there. Lymphedema can cause other complications and can be a sign of a more serious condition. If you suffer from fluid retention in your hands or legs, please read my article on the best natural remedies for swollen ankles, such as reducing salt intake in your diet, exercising and drinking plenty of water that can help reduce fluid retention.

How to Treat Pruney Fingers

In most cases, having pruney fingers is a temporary condition that quickly resolves itself when the underlying cause is addressed. For example, pruney fingers and toes that are caused by soaking in the bath for a long time will return to normal fairly quickly after you have dried yourself.

Taking care of your hands and using a natural moisturizer on your skin can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles on your fingers.

For example, you can try applying aloe vera to naturally moisturize your hands if they look wrinkly. The Indian Journal of Dermatology reported that aloe vera helps to increase elasticity in the skin and make it appear less wrinkled.14 All you have to do to reduce pruney hands after bathing or washing dishes is massage some aloe vera gel to your fingertips.

Increasing your water intake and keeping your hands warm can also help prevent your fingers from pruning without water.

When to See a Doctor

If you have noticed that your fingers are pruney for no discernible reason and the condition doesn’t go away, you should speak with your doctor about your condition.

Read my other related articles:

Article Sources

  1. Clin Auton Res. (2004) 14: 125.
  2. Muscle Nerve.2003 Mar;27(3):307-11.
  3. Brain Behav Evol. 2011;77:286–290.
  4. PLoS ONE. 9(1): e84949.
  5. Br Med J. 1973 Sep 22; 3(5881): 615–616.
  6. DermNetNZ. Aquagenic wrinkling of the palms.
  7. WebMD. Fingertips have been wrinkly like a bath.
  8. UpToDate. Raynaud phenomenon.
  9. PatientInfo. Cyanosis.
  10. DermNetNZ. Skin signs of gastrointestinal disease.
  11. DermNetNZ. Acanthosis nigricans.
  12. WebMD. Diabetes and your skin.
  13. OncoLink. Lymphedema: The basics.
  14. Indian J Dermatol. 2008; 53(4): 163–166.
  15. Hyperhidrosis. Mayo Clinic.
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