Dermatophagia: Why Do People Eat Their Finger Skin?

Can’t you remember when you moved on from chewing pens to eating your own skin or even your own flesh? Do you gnaw your fingers, especially the skin around the nail? Do you do this out of the blue, out of nowhere, not just to pull off an annoying “hangnail”? While eating your skin, your flesh is bleeding from the bottom, but you can’t stop yourself?If your answer is yes to all of these, and if you know why the fingers in the photo below look like that, you probably have a psychological problem called dermatophagia:

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It is normal for kids to do these kinds of things most of the time. They don’t know what they are doing, they are not even aware that what they are doing is bad, they just imitate a behavior they see from their friends and don’t think about it. However, if a grown-up at age of 25 biting their nails and can’t stop it, then there’s a problem somewhere.

Unfortunately, the fact that there is a problem does not mean that the person mis always aware of that problem. This is also the case in dermatophagia (the psychological problem characterized by the eating of the skin around the nail). Many people with dermatophagia do not deliberately eat the skin around the nails, do not realize that they have started to eat, and when they do, they can almost never stop themselves. Therefore, these people tear their skin and sometimes their flesh, bleed, and often even digest themselves by swallowing!

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Although remarkably common, it is a very rare topic in the medical literature. People don’t talk much about it as they are probably embarrassed. It also almost never needs to be treated, as it almost never causes a health problem. However, walking around with an open wound on the hand is a great invitation to some diseases. Dermatophagy itself is not the problem; but the things it invite can cause problems. Working as a father-son psychosomatic dermatologist, Michael Scott Jr. and Michael Scott III, wrote in the scientific journal Cutis in 1997:

Dermatophagia is not as uncommon as some reports claim. Despite this, it is almost never mentioned in textbooks. Specifically, this disorder is defined as a neurotic and obsessive habit of pulling out one’s own limbs with one’s own teeth.

The exact cause of this and how it can be treated is not yet known. Although it is associated with stress and fuss, research shows that this type of behavior is not always a response to such. Because in some studies, it has been shown that there is no need for stress or rush to see this biting behavior. On the other hand, stress and fuss increase the likelihood and frequency of this behavior. Therefore, although there is a relationship, a direct cause-effect relationship has not been established yet.

Similarly, this condition is trying to be associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); however, the claims in this direction are not strong and sufficient. In 2013, this disorder was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM) together with other “pathological care problems.” Of the Mount Kisco Integrated Medicine Center in New York, Dr. Nilah Shah says that this inclusion is promising and that funding applications can now be made to conduct research on this issue, as officially declaring this behavior a problem opens the door for research and funding.

However, not everyone agrees that it is associated with OCD. At the University of California, San Francisco, psychiatrist Dr. Carol Mathews says:

The obsessions seen in OCD are really unwanted obsessions. However, in pathological nail biting, the individual feels good. It feels really good. It feels good when it gets rid of that nail or patchy skin. It’s a strange sense of reward; but ultimately it is a reward. Behaviors such as hair pulling, skin biting and nail biting should not be seen as disorders unless they affect daily life and require a certain clinical urgency.

Nomenclature Controversies

These people are sometimes called “wolf biters”; because wolves can tear their own skin when trapped and have no place to escape. This is a neurological and stress-related disorder. But scientists prefer to call it “dermatophagy” instead. It’s both more scientific and less cool, so it doesn’t feel like it’s a “good thing”. In 2005, in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, experts from Walter Reed Army Medical Center stated that this nomenclature is not very accurate, because the word “dermatophagy”, which means “skin eater” in Greek, means that these people regularly eat their skin and this is incorrect. Panagiotis Mitropoulos, one of the authors of the article, writes:

Published reports on dermatophagy state that patients simply bite and pull their skin obsessively. However, these reports do not say that they fed or digested them. In fact, these patients have a reactive thickening of their skin. This is not a wound, ulcer or skin loss.

Mitropoulos suggests instead the word “dermatodax“, meaning “biting the skin.” However, this word has not yet been accepted in the literature; because this whole ordeal still not talked about much. But whatever you call it, the claim made by Mitropoulos does not seem to be very accurate. Because, as described by the patients who complain about it on the internet and do not hesitate to talk, and as the photos show, people who suffer from this problem actually eat their skin a lot!