What Your Fingers Can Predict About Your Heart Health

A properly functioning aorta plays a significant role in our heart health. Connected to the heart, this main artery transports blood to tissues in the body, according to 2013 research published in the American Journal of Physiology: Heart and Circulatory Physiology. However, without sufficient exercise, living a sedentary lifestyle can cause the aorta to stiffen as we grow older, making a person more susceptible to hypertension, stroke, or heart attack later in life.

Traditionally, doctors have gauged the health of a patient's aorta by measuring the pulse of the carotid artery in the neck or the femoral artery in the groin. However, this method can pose some challenges, particularly for patients with obesity due to difficulty in measuring the pulse of the femoral artery.

Researchers are now exploring different ways in which physicians can screen for aortic stiffness without relying solely on these two arteries. Some studies have shown that an entirely different area may hold the key. Far more accessible and significantly less invasive, experts may be able to use the pulse found in one's finger instead.

Your finger pulse may help physicians detect stiffening in the aorta

In the 2013 study, Gary Pierce, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa, established a new technique involving the use of a transducer on a patient's finger or the inner arm slightly below the elbow (the brachial artery), as reported by ScienceDaily. A transducer is a device that uses force as input to produce measurable numerical output, such as heart rate, as explained by experts at AD Instruments. By using a transducer and factoring in the patient's age and body mass index (BMI), the researchers found that physicians can determine whether there has been a hardening of the aorta.

"The technique is more effective in that it is easy to obtain just one pulse waveform in the finger or the brachial artery, and it's less intrusive than obtaining a femoral waveform in patients," Pierce told ScienceDaily. "It also can be easily obtained in the clinic during routine exams similar to blood pressure tests."

How your thumb may indicate aortic aneurysm risk

Stiffening in the aorta may not be the only indicator of cardiovascular health that our fingers can reveal. According to a 2021 study published in The American Journal of Cardiology by Yale researchers, a simple stretch of the fingers may indicate whether a person could be unknowingly carrying an ascending aortic aneurysm. As outlined in YaleNews, the test involves holding one's hand upright and straight and then stretching the thumb across the width of the palm as far as possible. If the thumb extends beyond the width of the hand, it could be a sign of a previously undetected aneurysm. 

Overextension of the thumb could mean that a patient has longer bones and more lax joints, both of which can indicate connective tissue disease in the aorta or beyond. In the study, more than 300 heart patients took the thumb test. While most did not produce a positive result, those who did had a greater chance of carrying an aneurysm. Therefore, the study team recommended that the thumb-palm test be incorporated into routine patient check-ups as a means of potential early detection and intervention.