If you start to notice the development of nail ridges, one of the most important things you should do is take note of which direction the ridges are running. There is a significant difference between vertical and horizontal nail ridges, as the latter can signal far more serious health problems. By paying close attention to the rate at which ridges or ripples in the nail bed develop, as well as to their overall appearance, you can potentially head off more serious health problems.
Vertical nail ridges run from the base of the nail (at the cuticle) to the top of the fingernail. They are often hereditary and generally become more visible as we age, but they may also arise from dehydration, vitamin deficiency, or improper nail care (such as too much buffing or filing). These are the most common and benign variety of nail ridges, and can typically be treated by improving diet, drinking more water, and regularly moisturizing the nail.
Horizontal nail ridges, otherwise known as Beau’s lines (named after Joseph Beau, who studied them in the 19th century), run from one side of the nail to the other. They are often deeper and less evenly spaced than vertical ridges. They are sometimes also accompanied by discoloration of the nail, particularly if there has been some trauma to the nail bed—in which case you will likely just have to live with the unsightly appearance. Other times, however, they are signs of more serious health issues.
It is almost always unnecessary to contact a physician regarding vertical ridges, unless they are accompanied by pain or other nail problems. Horizontal ridges that develop suddenly might be cause for concern, however, and warrant a call to your doctor. They may signify malnutrition, the onset of diabetes, or even heart problems. Sometimes, Beau’s lines can be caused by certain medications, so if you have started taking a new prescription and develop these lines, make sure to let your physician know.
Those who notice horizontal ridges on their nails should also look closely to identify whether they are actual ripples, or just pigmented lines that only look like ridges. If the latter is true, the “ridges” are actually Muehrke lines, often mistaken for Beau’s lines. While Beau’s lines are depressions in the nail surface itself, Muehrke lines are thin strips of pigmentation. They may still be cause for consulting a physician, however, as they may signal a problem with the nail bed underneath the fingernail itself.
It is possible to develop vertical and horizontal ridges on only some of your nails. If ridges only appear on one or two nails, this is almost a sure sign of some type of infection or nail trauma resulting from injury. In ridged nails, especially with regard to Beau’s lines, cells temporarily stop dividing and sometimes, the nail itself will stop growing. Thus, doctors should be able to estimate when the infection or injury occurred by comparing the affected fingers to other nails.