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Why Is a Paper Cut So Painful?

Real Simple answers your questions.

Blue sheet of paper with a bandage covering a slitJose Picayo

Q. Why does a paper cut hurt so much?
Julie Stanley
Webster Groves, Missouri

A. Because your fingertips are extremely sensitive. “We rely on our fingers to explore the environment—to determine how hot or cold, dull or sharp something is,” says Melanie Henry, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of pain management and anesthesia at the University of California, San Francisco. “So the skin in that area needs to be very perceptive.” The brain devotes at least 10 times as much attention to touch in the hands as it does in the arms or the legs, says Anne Louise Oaklander, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. The fingers themselves contain among the highest densities of nociceptors (nerve fibers that signal surface-level pain).

You can also blame the paper, which makes jagged rips in the skin, irritating more of those pain nerve fibers than a clean tear would. And a paper cut catches you by surprise, ambushing your nerves while you’re innocently opening the mail. “Sudden injuries elicit greater pain,” says Oaklander. “That’s why you usually feel a paper cut but you might not notice a blister forming.”

Thankfully, treating a paper cut is as easy as getting one. Just rinse it with soap and water, then wrap it with a bandage. “Exposure to the air causes the injury’s nerves to fire,” says Robert Grant, M.D., the chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at New York–Presbyterian Hospital /Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Covering the cut will stop that from happening and cause the pain to cease.” Protected, the wound should heal within a day or two, leaving you ready to tackle future paper capers.


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