What Is Onychorrhexis?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Hypothyroidism may cause onychorrhexis.
Hypothyroidism may cause onychorrhexis.

Onychorrhexis refers to a form of brittle nails, which may cause vertical, or from the top down, splitting. Peeling or ridging may also be noted and sometimes nails can’t grow. This condition has numerous causes, and it may result from certain diseases or it might occur due to repeated exposure of the nails to water or chemicals. When diagnosed, treatment needs to address any underlying causal factors and also involves changing behavior that may be adding to the problem.

Excessive water exposure may cause onychorrhexis.
Excessive water exposure may cause onychorrhexis.

Brittle nails aren’t always onychorrhexis. They may have horizontal splitting instead, which is called onychoschisis. Alternately, these two conditions may occur together. Both types of brittle nails can be recognized by the main symptoms of splitting, peeling, and poor growth.

The numerous causes associated with onychorrhexis include many diseases. Hypothyroidism or hypoparathyroidism are associated with brittle and peeling nails. Certain autoimmune conditions like Sjogren’s syndrome may cause very dry fingers, and psoriasis might also produce onychorrhexis or onychoschisis. Alternately, malnutrition, as might result from conditions like anorexia, bulimia or gastrointestinal tract ailments, are viewed as possible risk factors for brittle nails. Poor blood supply to the extremities from conditions like Reynaud’s, diabetes, or congestive heart failure are other potential explanations.

Malnutrition may cause onychorrhexis.
Malnutrition may cause onychorrhexis.

Sometimes this condition is not caused by disease. Instead, it may result from exposure to harsh chemicals, like those present in nail polish remover. Excessive water exposure may also produce brittle nails. For example, someone who works as a dishwasher might be prone to this condition. Injuring the nails repeatedly may make them brittle, too.

When this condition is brought to a physician’s attention, he may look for underlying causes, if onychorrhexis is obviously not occurring due to chemical or water exposure. It may be difficult to fully treat this problem without addressing disease-based causal factors. In addition to treating any medical disorder or in the absence of physical illness, patients are likely to be advised to change certain habits to help improve the issue.

Exposing the nails to polish remover regularly can make them brittle.
Exposing the nails to polish remover regularly can make them brittle.

These include minimizing handwashing or exposure to chemical irritants. After each handwashing, shower, or bath, patients are directed to use moisturizers, which can help restore strength to the nails. If the condition is severe, individuals also might be advised to wear gloves during water exposure and limit their use of soap when washing the hands or showering. These measures may help improve the problem. Some physicians also recommend supplements that may strengthen the nails, too.

With careful attention to physician instructions, this problem often improves. It may not get better if an underlying disorder remains unaddressed. For instance, if anorexic behavior continues, the constant state of malnutrition may result in onychorrhexis that cannot be fully cured.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

Lostnfound

I swear, autoimmune diseases like Sjogren's are so unpredictable. You never know how a person will be affected at any one time. A co-worker has lupus and she deals with it pretty well, unless she has a really bad flare-up.

Seems like she's had the splitting nails problem. She said one time she wanted to get a manicure, but didn't want to because it might make the splitting worse. She's doing fairly well right now because her stress level is better. She said it really makes a difference in how she feels when she doesn't have a lot of stress.

Grivusangel

My aunt has Sjogren's Syndrome and onychorrexis is one of the side effects she has. She has tried sleeping with lotion and gloves on, and that helps, but she just can't do it in the summertime and she has a real problem with it.

She said keeping clear nail polish on her nails did help, along with some kind of nourishing base coat especially for nails prone to splitting. Her rheumatologist said he didn't have a problem with anything she did to combat it. She has also had some luck with rubbing vitamin E oil into her nails and fingers and into her cuticles.

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    • Hypothyroidism may cause onychorrhexis.
      Hypothyroidism may cause onychorrhexis.
    • Excessive water exposure may cause onychorrhexis.
      Excessive water exposure may cause onychorrhexis.
    • Malnutrition may cause onychorrhexis.
      Malnutrition may cause onychorrhexis.
    • Exposing the nails to polish remover regularly can make them brittle.
      Exposing the nails to polish remover regularly can make them brittle.