5 Ways Your Hands Are Telling You That Your Lungs Are in Trouble

Don't overlook these subtle signs of lung problems.

Lung conditions are most often marked by traditional respiratory symptoms: cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain, to name a few. But experts say your lungs can affect other parts of your body as well, some of which you may not expect. Your hands, for instance, can present with surprising symptoms that may shed light on your pulmonary health. Read on to learn how your hands can alert you to a problem with your lungs, and which other subtle symptoms to look out for.

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Finger clubbing

Doctor looking at fingers

Finger clubbing occurs when the tip of the finger swells due to excess soft tissue underneath the nail beds. According to Mount Sinai, the majority of finger clubbing cases point to a diagnosis of lung cancer. However, clubbing can also be caused by other lung conditions, including chronic lung infections and interstitial lung disease.

Rarely, non-lung related causes such as infectious endocarditis (an infection in the lining of the heart muscles), liver disease, or overactive thyroid may be to blame. If you notice that your fingers have become round and bulbous at the tips, or if your fingernails appear widened or flattened, bring it to your doctor's attention.

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Blue nail beds

doctor looks at a patient's nails
Von Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock

Pulmonary hypertension occurs when blood pressure increases in the lungs' arteries due to the narrowing of blood vessels. Some patients who experience pulmonary hypertension go on to develop heart failure as the right ventricle of the heart weakens under the strain of elevated blood pressure.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, one way doctors will assess your likelihood of pulmonary hypertension is to look for a bluish tint in the nail beds. This discoloration can occur as a result of reduced oxygen in the blood as pulmonary hypertension worsens, and is also associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Poor grip strength

Hand using grip strengthener
Marian Fil/Shutterstock

COPD can come with a range of symptoms, including cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue, and chest pressure. But experts say there's another symptom you may notice in your hands: having weakened grip strength.

According to a 2021 study published in the journal BMC Pulmonary Medicine, roughly 72 percent of subjects with COPD developed this symptom, while 28 percent did not. Subjects with weakened grip strength were also significantly more likely to visit the emergency room for their COPD symptoms within a year after the study's initiation, compared with the regular grip strength group. This suggests that in many patients, grip strength weakens as COPD worsens.

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Rheumatoid arthritis

man sitting at home holding his left arm wrist due to pain caused by osteoarthritis, arthritis, tendonitis, rheumatism.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder which causes inflammation around the joints. Those with RA often experience stiffness, pain, and swelling in the wrist and fingers, among other body parts.

Experts point out that developing rheumatoid arthritis can put you at heightened risk of certain lung problems. According to the Mayo Clinic, the lung problems most commonly associated with rheumatoid arthritis are interstitial lung disease, lung nodules, pleural disease, and small airway obstruction.

"Contact your doctor promptly if you have rheumatoid arthritis and experience any unexplained breathing problems," advise Mayo Clinic experts. "Sometimes treatment is aimed at the rheumatoid arthritis. In other cases, treatment involves medication to suppress the immune system or a procedure to remove fluid surrounding the lungs," they explain.

Pain and swelling

Closeup of woman's hands pain discomfort

Sarcoidosis is a chronic disease of unknown cause which occurs when the lymph nodes become enlarged. According to the Mayo Clinic, it's characterized by "the growth of tiny collections of inflammatory cells (granulomas) in any part of your body—most commonly the lungs and lymph nodes." The most frequently reported symptoms of this condition are dry cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

However, the symptoms of sarcoidosis extend beyond the lungs to other parts of the body as well. People with sarcoidosis are often prone to cysts in the hands, feet, and other bony parts in the body, which can cause pain and swelling in those areas. Speak with your doctor if you notice these or other concerning symptoms.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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