What Is Onychatrophia?

Simply put, it is a wasting away of the nail. Have you ever seen someone with one or more of their finger or toe nails looking like it was eaten away…that’s Onychatrophia.

The term atrophy is a familiar concept to many people. It’s commonly used to refer to a condition that affects seniors, for example, persons who have had an extended hospital stay, or someone who lives a sedentary life. It is simply the wasting away of a part of the body. A person’s muscles could also be described as having been “atrophied.” Meaning that the muscles have decreased in size, weakened, and have generally lost the ability to perform as expected.

The same thing can happen to nails. Whether it’s the result of damage to the matrix, which would affect only one nail, or a larger health issue, which could affect all 20, your nails can atrophy. When a nail is atrophied, it loses its healthy look, begins to shrink in size, and may eventually wither away altogether. Unlike muscles, however, the nail can’t regain its vitality and health. Once a nail atrophies, this is where the condition is referred to as onychatrophia, it is not reversible.  “Onychatrophia is a scarring process, similar to a scar on the skin, once the damage is done, the nail won’t recover.


It has been identified, that nails are a mirror image of a person’s overall health. Many times, systemic health issues cause nail problems such as splitting, breaking, thinning, whitening, yellowing or darkening. In addition to these indicators, is the fact that onychatrophia is also evidence of a larger health problem. Because it’s a secondary effect, and not a primary condition; the result of damage to the matrix; it can occur too because of a genetic range of health issues which include:

  • Trauma
  • Vascular problems
  • Thyroid
  • Skin diseases such as lichen planus
  • Stevens-Johnson syndrome
  • Lyell’s syndrome

There may be itching at the initial stage, which is often a side effect of the disease that induced it. Other than that, however, onychatrophia is not likely to cause pain or discomfort.

Who gets it?

There are varying degrees of onychatrophia.  A person may have only one nail that has partially atrophied but will never worsen because the condition that caused it was identified and treated early. On the other hand, sometimes the primary cause is on-going, and damage to the nails is so severe, a person may lose all their nails.  Though the condition affects both men and women, it is not limited to adults. Children and infants can be born with, or suffer from, diseases that cause nails to atrophy.

Can it be Treated?

Doctors can determine if a nail has atrophied simply by looking at it. It is evident via the nail remnant, nail destruction, and nail absence. Doctors will treat the condition that caused the atrophy, but no treatment is available to improve onychatrophia. The reason for this is that the problem isn’t in the nails; but is characteristic of a larger problem and cannot be treated in isolation. At times, a patient may  respond to treatment and recover from the larger health issue. However, though the cause is removed, once the nails have atrophied, they will not return to normal.

Living with the Condition

Unfortunately, onychatrophia gives the nail an unattractive appearance. Because many people are unfamiliar with it, the condition can be confused by the casual observer with a fungus. Due to vanity, the unsightly nail or nails may motivate the affected person to explore the option of false nails to cover the defective area. However, it is strongly advised that doing such is not a healthy option; especially given that in some cases there isn’t an existing nail.

Even in the case of a natural nail manicure or pedicure, certain risks are inherent when  work has to be done on nails that have atrophied.  Since the nail is likely to be thin and damaged, the pedicurist is likely to buff the surrounding skin while caring for the nail. They need to be extremely careful as this could irritate or tear the skin, leaving it open to infection. Pedicurists should proceed with caution, using common sense and protecting themselves and their clients by working within the scope of their training. In light of the sensitivities involved, affected persons should seek advice from their doctor/ dermatologist/ podiatrist/ chiropodist/foot health practitioner to arrive at the best possible solution for caring for their nails.

Your feet mirror your general health . . . cherish them!

129 thoughts on “What Is Onychatrophia?

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