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What Causes Ridges in Fingernails

July 23, 2020 6 min read

What Causes Ridges in Fingernails

Fingernails have long been a sign of one’s grooming choices and fashion sensibilities. However, you might not realize that the tips of your fingers can also reveal important details about your overall health and wellness. In particular, individuals may develop fingernail ridges that are indicative of underlying conditions, nutritional deficiencies and other concerns. Keep reading to learn what causes ridges in fingernails, along with the steps you can take to keep your nails (and yourself) healthy.

Your fingernails and your health

Made from keratin, the same protein found in our skin and hair, fingernails may develop ridges that can point to a wide range of medical concerns. Fingernail ridges are thin, raised, unpigmented lines on the nail. They can be horizontal or vertical. Additionally, they can show up on the raised parts of the nail. If you’re experiencing new fingernail ridges along with other concerning symptoms, you may want to see a trusted doctor to have your condition evaluated.

People’s bodies change as a result of the aging process, and fingernails are no exception. While slight vertical ridges are rarely cause for concern, there are cases when ridges can indicate an underlying health condition or issue. For example, individuals experiencing fingernail ridges may be suffering from vitamin deficiencies or thyroid issues. In rare cases, ridges can be a symptom of more serious conditions like diabetes or syphilis. Staying abreast of the condition of your nails is the best way to ensure that you notice any changes early.

Types of fingernail ridges

Not all fingernail ridges are created equal. In general, patients develop two different types of ridges on their nails. Determining the kind of ridge you have is the first step to assessing whether or not your condition is cause for concern.

Vertical ridges

Also called longitudinal striations or bands, vertical nail ridges are common in older patients. In fact, the condition affects around 20 percent of adults(1). Caused by a slowing of cell turnover during the aging process, these furrows run from the tip of the nail to the cuticle and are rarely cause for concern. However, there are cases when vertical nail ridges can indicate a more serious problem.

Typically, you don’t need to worry about vertical ridges in the nail unless you’re also experiencing other symptoms. For example, patients whose ridges are accompanied by discoloration and brittleness may have a nail condition known as trachyonychia. On the other hand, individuals whose nails appear concave may be suffering from iron deficiency anemia. If you have these or other symptoms in addition to your vertical nail ridges, don’t hesitate to speak to your doctor about the condition.

Horizontal ridges

While vertical nail ridges often accompany the aging process and are rarely cause for concern, horizontal ridges are more likely to indicate an underlying health issue. Also known as Beau’s lines, these deep horizontal ridges run from side to side and develop when nail plate growth is disrupted (2). Along with injuries, this condition can occur as a result of the following:

  • High fever
  • Thyroid disease
  • Mumps
  • Diabetes
  • Syphilis
  • Acute kidney disease
  • Chemotherapy
  • Malnutrition
  • Psoriasis

If your Beau’s lines developed from an injury to the nail, you can expect them to grow out and disappear within a few months. However, if you’re suffering from horizontal ridges due to an underlying medical condition, you may need to determine what causes your fingernail ridges in order to find relief.

What causes fingernail ridges?

A number of conditions can lead to vertical or horizontal ridges in the nail. While many nail ridges will resolve on their own with time, others require lifestyle changes. If you want to know what causes your fingernail ridges, start by looking at your recent medical history.

For example, patients with digestive disorders may develop nail ridges due to a lack of nutrients. Conditions like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease can all affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrition from food. As a result, the body may struggle to make new cells for skin and nails. If you have a condition that impacts your digestion, you may want to talk to a gastroenterologist about your nail ridges.

While some fingernail ridges stem from an underlying issue, others accompany the natural aging process. While you can’t turn back the clock on aging, there are steps you can take to combat the health effects of getting older. For example, staying hydrated is key to maintaining proper oil production. Additionally, eating well and exercising regularly can ensure your circulatory system continues to work properly.

When should you see a doctor about your fingernail ridges?

Vertical nail ridges that come and go are unlikely to be a serious issue. However, if your condition is persistent, or if you’re suffering from horizontal lines in the nail, it’s wise to visit a doctor to find out what causes your fingernail ridges. A knowledgeable dermatologist will be able to evaluate your condition and determine whether lifestyle changes or treatments are necessary to resolve the problem. Additionally, a dermatologist can make sure the ridges aren’t stemming from a more serious skin condition, such as melanoma(3).

Diagnosing fingernail ridges

Doctors take various steps when diagnosing fingernail ridges. Upon visiting your dermatologist, you can expect them to examine your nails and ask you about your medical history. In particular, they will want to know whether you suffered a recent injury, such as a nail being crushed, torn off or cut too deeply.

Additionally, your doctor will likely ask about other symptoms you may be experiencing. Along with discussing underlying conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, your doctor may order blood and urine tests. The results can reveal nutritional deficiencies and indicate whether your kidneys and other organs are functioning appropriately. Depending on your nail’s appearance, the doctor may opt to take fingernail clippings or even a nail biopsy to send to the lab for assessment.

Keeping your nails healthy and beautiful

Once you’ve determined what causes your fingernail ridges, you can decide upon the best method for treating them. In many cases, therapy is focused on resolving the underlying condition causing the ridges. For example, patients with horizontal or Beau’s lines might be suffering from diabetes. Under those circumstances, controlling blood sugar would be crucial to alleviating the ridges and protecting overall health. On the other hand, because vertical ridges are often a symptom of aging, you may be able to alleviate them by boosting your vitamin and mineral intake. Along with eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, you can take certain supplements to boost nail health and overall wellness.

Use collagen supplements

As one of the best supplements for people over 40,collagen helps support collagen production in the body, which decreases as we age. Along with preventing nail ridges, collagen can help boost muscle mass, reduce skin wrinkles and strengthen bones.

Take biotin

If your doctor rules out an underlying medical condition, you may also want to consider taking biotin as a way to treat your nail ridges at home. In fact, numerous studies have shown that biotin can help strengthen brittle nails by stimulating healthy cell growth and supporting the metabolism of protein-building amino acids(4).

Try magnesium pills

Finally,magnesium is a good choice for patients with vertical nail ridges. A mineral involved in protein synthesis, magnesium is found in whole grains, leafy vegetables, almonds and peanuts among other foods. Not only do experts believe that vertical ridges can be a sign of magnesium deficiency, but the World Health Organization also reports that 40 percent of people don’t get enough of this vital nutrient(5).

Additionally, nail ridge sufferers can boost nail health and strength by giving their fingers a little TLC. If your ridges are caused by the natural oil depletion that accompanies aging, protect your nails by applying a daily coat of vitamin E or coconut oil. Doing this can prevent vertical ridges from forming in the first place. You can also give your nails a break from the harsh chemicals present in nail polish and removers by skipping your weekly manicure. Acetone-based polish removers are drying and can pull oil from already damaged nails(6).

In summary

Your nails don’t just reveal a lot about your tastes and color preferences. They can also provide valuable insight into your overall health. The next time you break out the nail clippers or hit the salon for a manicure, take a moment to assess the state of your nails, keeping an eye out for ridges that may indicate an underlying condition.

The fact is that most vertical ridges go away on their own and are rarely cause for concern. Still, anyone suffering from horizontal nail ridges (or vertical ridges that don’t resolve after a few months) should consider speaking to their doctor. Because ridges can signify a serious illness or nutritional deficiency, it pays to stay abreast of any changes in your nails’ texture or appearance. You may also want to consider supplements as a way of maintaining your nails’ health and beauty in the coming years.

April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice