Holograms are 3D images with a near-miraculous property: Each part of the image, examined close-up, contains the entire image within it. Over time, we’ve learned that the human body is similar. A close examination of certain parts can reveal information about the health of the whole person.
Understanding these clues is vital, because we aren’t granted easy, safe, and direct visual access to bones, organs, and blood. On top of that, modern imaging technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, and X-ray are expensive and don’t always give a complete view.
So physicians have developed ways to learn about overall health by observing parts of the body. It’s useful for everyone to know some of these indicators as well, since they can suggest when a visit to the doctor is in order.
As the body’s largest organ, the skin reflects a person’s underlying health with astounding detail. For instance, a yellowish tinge suggests liver problems, while yellow, reddish, or brown patches that become hard to the touch may be a warning sign of diabetes. A distinctive “butterfly rash” on the cheeks and across the bridge of the nose can be a sign of lupus.
Our hands also tell us a lot about our health. For starters, grip strength is a good proxy for general health because a weak grip (along with a slow walking gait) can indicate a variety of health conditions, including a failing heart. Red bumps or blisters on the hands can signal a nickel allergy. Hand numbness or tingling can point to conditions ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to stroke. Fingers that turn white, blue, or red can suggest Raynaud’s disease, a vascular disorder.
As feet are the body parts farthest from the heart, chronically cold ones can suggest anemia or poor thyroid health, but a more common cause is simply poor circulation. Swollen feet can indicate lymphatic or heart disease. A feeling of burning or tingling in the feet often suggests nerve damage from diabetes. And, as with the fingers, red, blue, or white coloring can point to Raynaud’s.
Any deviation from a smooth, even shape or normal color of your nails, whether on fingers or on toes, can reflect negative health changes. Round or linear depressions in the nails, called nail pitting, may be a sign of psoriasis. Spoon nails, in which the normally convex nails become concave like small dishes, are a sign of iron-deficiency anemia.
Other telltale signs of whole-body health are found in the breath, hair, teeth, lips, and whites of the eyes. Some of the best doctors I’ve known can make extraordinarily accurate diagnoses by observing body parts I’ve listed here. Despite high-tech testing advances, it’s hard to beat an experienced, observant physician who also relies on the same tools used by Hippocrates: a keen eye and a discerning touch.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Prevention.