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Why Do Paper Cuts Hurt So Damn Much?

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Mahmoud Abudeif, May 22, 2021.

  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

    Mar 5, 2019
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    It seems completely harmless, but anybody that has thumbed too quickly through a book or refilled a photocopier knows that paper holds a dark secret. If everything aligns properly, a single sheet of paper can do some serious damage. I’m of course referring to paper cuts, the dread of composed businesspeople and high schoolers alike.


    There’s not a lot of scientific research directed at understanding the pain of paper cuts — and that’s understandable, as few in their right mind would sign up for a study that involves inflicting this kind of torture on the participants. Still, this doesn’t mean we can’t dig a bit deeper to understand why on earth they are so painful.

    The problems start at our hands’ nociceptors — the nerve fibers that send touch and pain messages to our brain. There are lots more pain receptors in our hands than in the arms, the legs or the stomach, which enables us to maneuver things with our hands efficiently, but also makes them more prone to pain and injury.

    It’s a way to make us avoid touching things that are hot, sharp or in anyway painful. In fact, a 2014 study found that the fingertips have the highest tactile spatial acuity of the entire body. Tactile spatial acuity means the ability to perceive the sense of touch, including pain.

    “Our hands should be a great judge of those bad or painful things,” Mark Abdelmalek, chief of laser and dermatologic surgery at Drexel University College of Medicine, told ABC. “If you had a paper cut on your thigh, it wouldn’t hurt nearly as bad because the thigh doesn’t deserve all that attention in the brain’s somatosensory cortex.”

    This can actually be proven by doing a simple test. Take a paperclip and unfold it so that both ends are pointing in the same direction. If you use it to poke yourself on your hands or face, you can probably perceive each of the clip’s two pointy ends individually. This is what’s referred to as “two-point discrimination.”

    Now, if you try the same thing on your back or legs, chances are the two points would have to be really far apart before you’re able to tell them apart. That’s because the distribution of nerve endings there is far less dense.

    As we have many nerve endings in the skin in those parts of the body, the two points have to get really close to each other before being unable to fell them apart.

    “Paper cuts remind us that no matter how many times we have performed even a simple task we are capable of accidentally hurting ourselves. If that makes us a little more sympathetic to our neighbor’s pains, and a little more humble, then maybe paper cuts do us some good too. Maybe,” Gabriel Neal, a clinical associate professor, wrote in The Conversation.

    The role of the paper

    So we have the first part of the equation: our hands can hurt — a lot. But that still doesn’t explain why paper of all things can hurt so damn much.

    A lot of people on the internet claim that since paper is porous, it is a better host to bacteria than the clean surface of a razor or a knife. But dermatologists don’t really agree with that theory — bacteria can cause long-term problems, but in the moment of the cut, that’s not why it hurts.

    “Bacteria don’t cause pain. You get pain with an infection, because your skin is inflamed, trying to fight off bacteria, but bacteria doesn’t cause pain, “Joseph Eastern, a dermatologist in private practice, told ABC. “I don’t know that there’s any evidence that paper leaves behind more dirt and bugs than anything else you cut yourself with.”

    This doesn’t mean paper isn’t part of the problem. Paper is pretty sharp sharp, yet duller than knives and flimsier than needles — a combination that can sometimes result in awful cuts. When it cuts open the skin, paper leaves behind a chaotic path of destruction rather than a smooth laceration. It rips, tears, and shreds the skin, rather than making a clean slice.

    Normally, paper is malleable. Held in place though, a sheet of paper becomes inflexible and can exert high enough pressures to slice through flesh, leaving behind a rough and surprisingly painful cut.

    When you get a papercut, the many pain receptors on your hand continuously fire up, irritated by the combination of cellulosic wood pulp and chemically coated fibers, as well as the other additives (such as chalk) that are sometimes added to paper to make it easier to write on.

    When you get a papercut, the many pain receptors on your hand continuously fire up, irritated by the combination of cellulosic wood pulp and chemically coated fibers, as well as the other additives (such as chalk) that are sometimes added to paper to make it easier to write on.

    If that’s not enough for you, it gets worse. Paper cuts are typically shallow but not too shallow, getting past the top layer of the skin. They are less likely to bleed, clot and seal up the wound with a scab, which means that the nerves are open to the air and keep sending new messages of pain to the brain.

    How to treat paper cuts

    While painful, most paper cuts aren’t really serious and in general, they’ll heal in two to three days without any medical treatment. No need to rush to the doctor, at least in most cases. You can, of course, complain about it — you’re entitled to it.

    Here are things we can all do at home or at the office to support proper wound healing:

    • Wash your hands as soon as you get a paper cut, using soap and water. This will clean the injury and help prevent infection. Continue washing your hands frequently until the cut heals.
    • Apply antibiotic ointment. This will decrease the risk of infection and scarring. Use a clean cotton swab to apply it on the cut. If you must use your finger to apply ointment, wash your hand first.
    • Put on a bandage. If they are small, paper cuts can typically be left uncovered. But if the paper cut is large or painful, it might be wise to apply a bandage to protect from harmful bacteria.
    • Wear gloves. They might come handy when doing activities such as washing dishes, cooking food, gardening and taking public transportation. The gloves will reduce the risk of infection.
    How to prevent paper cuts

    They usually happen suddenly, so it’s quite common to think we can’t do anything about them. But that’s not necessarily true. There are some habits we can incorporate to our daily activities that might prevent some of those nasty paper cuts:

    • Using letter openers. A letter opener prevents from using the fingers, which reduces the risk of paper cuts.
    • Moisturizing the hands. The skin needs hydration in order to stay strong. Otherwise, if the skin is dry, it will be easily damaged by the edge of a paper. Keep the hands moisturized by using a hand cream, lotion, or balm.
    • Picking up paper slowly. Often, paper cuts happen when the hand swiftly drags across the edge of a paper. Avoid quickly grabbing or shuffling sheets of paper. If you handle large stacks, work slowly.
    • Wearing gloves. Latex gloves can help if you regularly handle a lot of paper. The gloves will provide a barrier between the skin and the paper.


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