How to Treat a Torn Nail

Nail Biting
In extreme cases, a torn nail can separate from the nail bed. See more pictures of skin problems.
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It can happen so quickly: You snag your nail on the car door, you stub your toe, or you absent-mindedly chip away at your nail polish, and suddenly you're left with a torn nail -- in severe cases, you could even separate a nail from your nail bed. Many things can cause painful torn or separated nails, but those nails will heal if you take the proper steps.

To understand how your nail tears, it helps to know what a nail is. Nails -- on fingers or toes -- are composed of a nail bed and a nail plate. The nail bed is the soft area of skin beneath the nail plate, which is the hard surface of the nail. Cells at the bottom of the nail bed make up the nail matrix and produce layers of a protein called keratin -- keratin builds the nail plate and anchors it to the nail bed. When your nail tears or separates, the nail matrix grows the new nail [source: Mayo Clinic].


The ways you can tear your nail plate are endless, but the most common way people tear their nails is by trimming them incorrectly -- they cut their nails at the wrong angle, leaving a tear or hangnail [source: Bruno]. Your nail plate can also separate from your nail bed if it's slammed between two things, such as a door and a doorframe, or if you have a condition that causes it to fall off, such as a fungal infection. Nails may also be more prone to breakage if you have nail psoriasis, if you use chemicals like acetone to remove nail polish or if you take certain medications or are undergoing chemotherapy [source: Van Houten].

Both nail tearing and nail separation can be painful, and they don't heal quickly -- you have to wait for them to grow back. But there are a few simple steps you can take to help the nail grow back and to prevent tearing and separating your nails in the future. Read on to learn what you can do to help heal your torn or separated nail.


Treating Torn Nails

The best way to treat a torn nail is to give it time to grow back. You can help make sure it grows back safely, and you can also take steps at home to reduce pain and discomfort as it grows.

You have a few options for treating a torn nail: You can tape the torn part back into position and then trim it off as the nail begins to grow, or you can clip off the torn portion right away at a slight outward angle so the nail grows back normally. If you try the first option and the tear is small, you can apply clear nail polish to prevent the nail from tearing further and then trim the nail as it grows [sources: Aetna InteliHealth, Mayo Clinic, Rouzier].


If your nail plate is completely separated from your nail bed, there's no way to reattach it -- you just have to wait for a new nail to grow. As with a torn nail, you can tape the nail in place while you wait for the new nail to grow, trimming it as needed. You may also want to consider having the separated nail removed completely and bandaging the exposed nail bed while you wait. A physician can help you determine the best solution for you. If your nail tears or separates because of an infection, then you need to see a doctor to treat it. Keeping the area around your nails dry can help prevent an infection from developing [sources: Aetna InteliHealth, Mayo Clinic, Rouzier].

If the finger or toe with a torn nail is painful, take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. If the pain is severe or doesn't subside, talk to your doctor [source: Rouzier].

To learn how you can help regrow your nails quickly, read the next page.


Regrowing Nails

Treating torn or separated nails can be frustrating. Your nails grow at a rate of about 0.004 inches (0.1 millimeters) per day -- it can take as long as six months for a nail to completely grow back [source: Mayo Clinic]. You can apply a nail hardener to keep your nails strong and help them grow faster, but you should avoid nail products that contain toluene sulfonamide, formaldehyde, alcohol, acetone or dibutyl phthalate -- these chemicals can make your nails weaker rather than stronger [source: Mayo Clinic].

While regrowing your nails, you can take some simple steps to keep them healthy and prevent future nail injuries. First, wear shoes that don't constrict your toenails -- they should be wide enough for your toes to wiggle around. Second, keep your nails neat and trim them often -- long nails are more likely to get caught and tear. Also, avoid biting and nibbling at your nails because this can increase the likelihood of tearing as well [source: Aetna InteliHealth].


You can also keep your nails healthy by moisturizing them with lotions and creams that contain humectants such as urea, phospholipids and lactic acid. Humectants retain moisture in your nails, helping prevent them from cracking. If you have torn or separated fingernails, wear gloves when washing dishes and cleaning to reduce the possibility of infection [source: Mayo Clinic].

Keeping your nails neat and healthy will reduce the likelihood of tearing them and separating them from the nail bed. For more information on treating torn nails, check out the links on the next page.


Torn Nail FAQ

How long does it take for a torn nail to heal?
On average, fingernails grow at a rate of 0.1 millimeters every day — though oddly, they grow faster in the summer during warm weather. Toenails grow back more slowly at an average rate of 1.62 mm per month.
Should I cover an exposed nail bed?
If the nail came off because of an injury, the exposed nail bed should be kept dry and bandaged while waiting for a new nail to start growing to reduce the chance of infection. If the nail came off because of an infection, you should see a doctor to determine what treatment to pursue.
What causes a nail to crack?
A split nail can be caused by too much moisture, picking or biting, or an injury or infection. It can also be indicative of bigger issues such as psoriasis or diseases of liver, thyroid, kidney, or skin.
Why is the side of my nail throbbing?
There are two potential reasons why the side of your nail is throbbing. Acute paronychia is an infection around the nail margin causing throbbing pain, redness, warmth, swelling, and pus. A hangnail is another potential reason that the side of your nail is throbbing.
Does a fingernail grow back?
If your nail plate is completely separated from your nail bed, there's no way to reattach it — you just have to wait for a new nail to grow in. If you lose an entire fingernail, it will likely grow back completely in three to six months. Toenails take longer though, so if you lose one it can take up to a year and a half for it to completely grow back.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Aetna InteliHealth. "Nail Trauma." (Accessed 10/02/09),IHW|~st,-1|~r,WSIHW000|~b,*|
  • Bruno, Karen. "Women's Hand and Nail Care." WebMD. (Accessed 10/02/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Nails: How to Keep Your Fingernails Healthy and Strong." November 30, 2007 (Accessed 10/02/09)
  • New Zealand Dermatological Society. "Nail Psoriasis." (Accessed 10/02/09)
  • Rauh, Sherry. "Healthy Fingernails: Clues About Your Health." WebMD. (Accessed 10/02/09)
  • Rouzier, Pierre. "Toenail Injuries." University of Michigan Sports Medicine Advisor. (Accessed 10/02/09)
  • Van Houten, Susan. "Nail that Has Torn or Separated from Nail Bed." Revolution Health. (Accessed 10/02/09)