Imagine this scenario – you are reading your favorite book and having a good time, but when flipping through the pages, you feel this sharp, intense pain on your fingertips. You whimper and look at your finger, and, there it is – paper cut! When looking at a stack of paper, you would not think of it as a weapon, but sometimes even a flimsy sheet of paper can make you feel the worst pain. The reason paper cuts hurt so much is that unlike a knife, which makes a straight cut, the paper acts like a saw blade and does more microscopic damage. It also leaves behind tiny fibers and chemical residue, which worsens the pain.
Not a lot of scientific research is being done to understand why paper cuts are so painful. That is partly because it is difficult to find study participants who would be willing to go through the torture again and again. Nevertheless, our understanding of human anatomy might shed some light on the matter.
For starters, it has to do with nerve endings which are called “nociceptors.” Their job is to warn the brain about possible dangers through the sensation of pain. For example, if you touch something hot, the nociceptors report that to the brain which then commands your hands to retract from the object. The same goes for dangerous chemicals and intense pressure that can rip open the skin.
Compared to the other parts of the body, our fingertips are chockfull of pain receptors. Since paper cuts mostly occur on fingertips, we experience the full extent of the pain. Getting a paper cut on your face or genitals would hurt just as much if not more. A cut on your arm, ankle, or thigh, on the other hand, might annoy you, but you would not feel the fiery intensity.
In fact, you can prove it by conducting a simple experiment that neurologists and psychologists have used for years. You need to unfold a paperclip so that both of its sharp ends are pointing in the same direction. Now, use it to poke yourself on the face or hands. You should be able to perceive both ends of the clip individually. This is known as the “two-point discrimination.” This phenomenon occurs because of the many nerve endings that exist in those areas.
If you do this experiment on your legs or back where the nerve endings are far less dense, you would not be able to feel the two points separately. However, if you move the two points farther apart and then poke yourself, you would be able to feel it in two different spots.
When you look at it from an evolutionary perspective, you see that it makes perfect sense. For example, we experience our world through touch. Even when doing the smallest of tasks, we use our hands and fingertips. The nerve endings on our fingertips not only help us perceive objects better, but they also inform and warn us of danger. So, in a way, they are our body’s safety mechanism.
Despite its harmless appearance, paper can be quite the weapon, especially in this case. The edges of paper may look smooth and straight to the naked eye, but if you magnify it and look more closely, you will see that paper is more like a saw than a metal blade. A metal knife leaves a straight and smooth cut, but paper cuts are chaotic and shallow lacerations. Instead of making a clean slice, the paper actually tears, rips, and shreds your skin.
Also, as mentioned above, paper cuts tend to be shallow and go just past the top layer of the skin known as the “epidermis” However, since the cut is not very deep, you do not bleed as much which delays the healing process. For example, when we bleed, our bodies produce blood clots that stop the bleeding. Then a scab develops which protects the wound from external irritants, and allows it to heal properly.
However, in the case of a shallow paper cut, the wound remains exposed and devoid of any natural protection. Unless you use a band-aid to cover it up, you would feel the sharp, intense pain every time you touch something. Without a blood clot or scab, the nerve endings will remain exposed to various outside elements. Besides, it’s not like you can simply stop using your hands!
Finally, when you look at a stack of milky white papers, you do not suspect for a second that they may be dirty. However, because of its porous nature, paper can house a thriving colony of bacteria which can be transferred to the wound. Though microscopic elements such as bacteria do not produce pain right away, they can make the wound worse if left untreated. It might take a few days for the wound to get infected, but if it does, it is sure makes the pain worse. The same can be said about the chemicals used for manufacturing paper. Such residual chemicals can irritate the skin further.
No matter how cautious you are, you probably cannot prevent paper cuts. If you handle paper on a daily basis, chances are you have to get used to a few cuts and scrapes. You can, however, take a few steps to minimize the pain that comes with it. For starters, wash the wound with soapy water right away. Keeping the area clean will help prevent infection. You can then use a small wrapping or Band-aid to cover the wound. This will keep it from reopening. The cut should heal in a day or two.