Differential diagnoses: Painful nails

Dr Nigel Stollery compares four presentations and offers clues for their diagnosis including subungual haematoma, paronychia, pincer nails, subungual viral wart

Subungual haematoma


  • Usually follows either direct trauma or repeated trauma, for example, tight footwear
  • Important to differentiate from subungual melanomas
  • Haematoma extends beyond the subungual area
  • Hutchinson's sign not present
  • Haematoma will usually move distally over time


  • Any pain from pressure beneath the nail can be trephined with a hot wire and the pressure released
  • Otherwise no treatment is required
  • With large haematomas, the nail may die and lift off
  • If diagnosis is in doubt a biopsy should be undertaken



  • Common cause of pain
  • Most common cause is ingrowing toenails
  • May be associated with tight footwear and high heels
  • Redness and discharging pus suggest infection
  • Pain may be present without infection


  • Paronychia may improve with saline soaking and treatment of underlying cause
  • If infection not responding, oral antibiotics may be required
  • Podiatry referral may be helpful
  • Particular care required in people with diabetes

Pincer nails


  • Also known as omega or trumpet nails
  • Lateral edges of the nail slowly approach each other compressing the nail bed
  • Usually affects toenails but can, rarely, affect fingernails
  • Hereditary forms exist but no responsible gene yet detected
  • Pain often, but not always, reported by patients


  • Podiatry treatment advised if symptomatic
  • Treatment comprises resection of lateral parts of the nails
  • In recurrent cases whole nail may be removed

Subungual viral wart


  • Unusual cause of pain under a nail
  • Cause not always apparent on simple examination
  • Dermoscopy can be helpful to detect wart beneath the nail
  • Vessels and hyperkeratosis provide clues


  • Treatment can be a challenge
  • Salicylic acid paint can be applied under the nail
  • Applications may be required for many weeks
  • If all else fails, removal of the nail, followed by cryotherapy or direct application of salicylic acid to the wart, may be required

Dr Stollery is a GP in Kibworth, Leicestershire, and clinical assistant in dermatology at Leicester Royal Infirmary.

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