A doctor finally explains the age-old question: Why do paper cuts hurt so much?
via Playful ZA / Twitter

This article was originally published by The Conversation. You can read it here.

Consider, for a moment, the paper cut. It happens suddenly and entirely unexpectedly, usually just as you are finally getting somewhere on that task you had been putting off.

Recall your sense of relief to finish that thank-you note to your aunt for the lovely sweater she sent you three months prior when, at the crucial moment, your hands failed you in their familiar task and the paper's edge slid past its restraints into the flesh.

Then pain – sharp, pure pain that bends your consciousness to the Only. Thing. That. Matters. Right. Now. There is sometimes a moment, between awareness and pain, when you bargain with fate, hoping that what just happened didn't. But the hand is gone and the blood needs tending.


Physically, paper cuts hurt as much as they do for a variety of reasons. They typically occur on parts of our bodies that are the most sensitive, such as the fingers, lips or tongue. The nerve networks of these body parts can discriminate with exceptional clarity and specificity, sensations of pressure, heat, cold and injury.

via Marco Verch / Flickr

Our brains even have specialized areas to receive signals coming from these parts in high definition. The exquisite sensing abilities that makes our fingers, lips and tongue so good at what they normally do, also makes injuries all the more painful.

These same highly sensitive areas are also parts we use all the time. Cuts on fingers, lips and the tongue tend to reopen throughout day dooming us to relive the pain again and again.

Finally, the depth of the wound is perfect for exposing and exciting the nerve fibers of the skin without damaging them the way a deeper, more destructive injury can severely damage the nerve fibers impairing their ability to communicate pain. With a paper cut, the nerve fibers are lit, and they are fully operational.

How to stop the ouch

As a family physician, I can recommend a few practical ways to minimize the discomfort of a paper cut. First, wash the cut as soon as you can with soap and water. This will reduce the chance of infection and help the wound heal quickly. Keep the wound clean, and if possible, for a few days cover it with a small bandage to cushion the wound and limit reopening.

While the physical effects of a paper cut are a real drag, I am fascinated by the mental and emotional response to the paper cut.

While both intentional self-injury (example: cutting) and major accidental injury (example: car accident with loss of limb or paralysis) have inspired important, ongoing research into their psychological effects, minor accidental injuries do not – and that is OK. There are more pressing issues in need of research than paper cuts.

But for a moment think back to the feelings you may have had about your paper cuts: surprise that the mundane act of licking an envelope could result in an injury (and so much blood!); shame that your body didn't coordinate such a simple task (why does this always happen to me?); anger for hurting yourself (arrrgh!); anxiety that it will happen again (I still have 200 more envelopes to go!). Paper cuts are trivial, but they may invoke a complex emotional response.

Paper cuts remind us that no matter how many times we have performed even a simple task we are capable of accidentally hurting ourselves. If that makes us a little more sympathetic to our neighbor's pains, and a little more humble, then maybe paper cuts do us some good too. Maybe.




Heather Cox Richardson didn't set out to build a fan base when she started her daily "Letters from an American." The Harvard-educated political historian and Boston College professor had actually just been stung by a yellow-jacket as she was leaving on a trip from her home in Maine to teach in Boston last fall when she wrote her first post.

Since she's allergic to bees, she decided to stay put and see how badly her body would react. With some extra time on her hands, she decided to write something on her long-neglected Facebook page. It was September of 2019, and Representative Adam Schiff had just sent a letter to the Director of National Intelligence stating that the House knew there was a whistleblower complaint, the DNI wasn't handing it over, and that wasn't legal.

"I recognized, because I'm a political historian, that this was the first time that a member of Congress had found a specific law that they were accusing a specific member of the executive branch of violating," Richardson told Bill Moyers in an interview in July. "So I thought, you know, I oughta put that down, 'cause this is a really important moment. If you knew what you were looking for, it was a big moment. So I wrote it down..."

By the time she got to Boston she has a deluge of questions from people about what she'd written.

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Harvard historian Donald Yacovone didn't set out to write the book he's writing. His plan was to write about the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the Civil Rights era, but as he delved into his research, he ran into something that changed the focus of his book completely: Old school history textbooks.

Now the working title of his book is: "Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History."

The first book that caught his attention was an 1832 textbook written Noah Webster—as in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary—called "History of the United States." Yacovone, a 2013 recipient of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois medal—the university's highest award for African American studies—told the Harvard Gazette about his discovery:

"In Webster's book there was next to nothing about the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it was a central American institution. There were no African Americans ever mentioned. When Webster wrote about Africans, it was extremely derogatory, which was shocking because those comments were in a textbook. What I realized from his book, and from the subsequent ones, was how they defined 'American' as white and only as white. Anything that was less than an Anglo Saxon was not a true American. The further along I got in this process, the more intensely this sentiment came out. I realized that I was looking at, there's no other word for it, white supremacy. I came across one textbook that declared on its first page, 'This is the White Man's History.' At that point, you had to be a dunce not to see what these books were teaching."

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