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Health measured from head to toe

In a past column I explored how the way we perform everyday movements and positioning of our head — without knowing it — can bring on chronic neck pain. Most neck pain is something we do not have to endure; it is within our power to address and correct it.

This week, I believe it is time we give our hands a “hand.” They are the body’s unsung leading actors. Not only do they perform countless tasks every day, but they are also our most frequently used body parts. Beyond the tasks they perform, they are silent yet powerful tools for communication, expression and emotion.

Our hands rely on an intersection of body systems to function properly. Doctors often look at our hands for signs of illness and disease. They do not have to be psychics in order to make incredibly accurate predictions about our prognosis by examining our hands. To the trained eye, our hands speak volumes — especially when something is not right. What we need to be mindful of is that we can often prevent or relieve the condition by working to keep our hands — along with the rest of our body — healthy.

You might find it shocking to learn what your hands divulge about you. You might believe that a wimpy handshake speaks to a person’s personality. In medicine, it can be a sign of deteriorating health. A recent PLOS One study of adults 40 to 69 found that stronger handgrip can be a sign of healthy heart function and structure. Decreased grip strength, coupled with a slow gait, may signify a higher risk of death from heart disease.

Medical researchers in England, based on a study of 139 fingerprints, learned that people with a particular whorl or spiral pattern on one or more fingers were more likely to have high blood pressure than people with arches or loop patterns.

Tiny red bumps or blisters on the hands can be a sign of nickel allergy. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sensitivity to nickel is one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis. It is not caused merely by contact with coins, but by any number of objects that contain nickel, including bracelets, watches, rings and even cell phones. You can also develop a hand rash from ingesting foods containing nickel. Nickel is especially prevalent in certain beans, chocolate, peanuts, soy, oatmeal and granola.

There are lots of reasons for hand numbness and tingling that are temporary and not an issue. If you are a young, healthy person, though, it could well be caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, considered the nation’s most common nerve disorder. If the numbness and tingling lead to a sudden onset of numbness or weakness in the arms or hands, it could potentially be the onset of a stroke and should not be ignored. In such an event, call 911.

Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes scaling on the skin’s surface and can show up on the hands or nails. If you think you have psoriasis, you should get it checked out. Psoriasis may be associated with conditions such as arthritis and cardiovascular disease.

Sometimes, hand shakiness is considered to be no big deal. Anyone can experience a little bit of shakiness in their hands, especially when nervous. Other times, this shakiness can be a sign of neurologic disease. The lesson is we should treat our hands right and not ignore problems.

You should also know that there are wrist exercises designed to increase your wrist mobility and lubricate your hand’s tendons. There are exercises that can help improve pinch strength and stabilize the thumb joint in individuals with thumb osteoarthritis. Therapeutic massage of the arms and hands can improve circulation and in turn help relieve aches and pains. These are things within your power to implement.

Let us now think for a moment about what we ask of our feet: Every single day, they take a beating from bearing our body weight. Our feet are often completely overlooked when it comes to health and fitness. They may not be exposed to the elements, but they are cooped up in socks and shoes. When we cram them into pointy or too-small shoes, it is not only uncomfortable but can also make your toenail grow into the surrounding skin. That can lead to the dreaded ingrown nail, which causes pain, swelling and infection. An inflammatory reaction occurs because the skin sees the nail as a foreign object.

We need to spend more time thinking about foot fitness, about keeping our feet strong, supple and problem-free. This enables us to be more mobile, active and engaged.

There is a movement today to develop shoes that replicate the tactile stimulation derived by being barefoot — sort of the no-shoe shoe. New research has revealed that foot calluses, the thickened skin that forms naturally when one walks barefoot, evolved to protect the feet and provide comfortable walking in ways traditional shoes do not match. For most of human existence, we walked barefoot. Cushioned shoes only came along about 300 years ago. As you may know, in martial arts training, it is all about gaining control over the body and ensuring proper form and execution of each movement. It would be hard to properly practice with shoes on. Having one’s feet bare makes it easier to sense small changes in the floor surface and to achieve better foot placement. The sense of tactical touch is critical. It changes how a person moves and creates stronger neural connections between the feet and the brain.

While barefoot walking may not be for everyone, researchers believe the sensory benefits of being barefoot could have positive health implications and deserve further study.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. 

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