International Journal of Academic Medicine

: 2017  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 197--201

Finger nail changes: A red flag for connective tissue disease

Mark W Fegley1, Rodrigo Duarte-Chavez2, Whitney Fegley3, Lauren E Stone4, Amitoj Singh1, Sudip Nanda2,  
1 Department of Family Medicine, Surgery, St. Luke's University Health Network, Bethlehem, USA
2 Department of Internal Medicine, Surgery, St. Luke's University Health Network, Bethlehem, USA
3 Department of Medicine Surgery, Surgery, St. Luke's University Health Network, Bethlehem, USA
4 Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, 3500 N Broad St, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Correspondence Address:
Sudip Nanda
Department of Internal Medicine, St. Luke's University Health Network, 801 Ostrum Street, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania - 18015


We report a 68-year-old female who presented to the cardiology clinic with ventricular tachycardia and specific finger nail abnormalities including proximal capillary loops and proximal and periungual erythema. The patient had multiple underlying connective tissue disorders and pulmonary fibrosis. Finger nail changes are highly specific and are an indication for all healthcare providers that connective tissue diseases (CTDs) are likely underlying. We review the clinical signs and symptoms, review diagnostic criteria, and further testing to evaluate for CTDs. The following core competencies are addressed in this article: Patient care, Medical knowledge.

How to cite this article:
Fegley MW, Duarte-Chavez R, Fegley W, Stone LE, Singh A, Nanda S. Finger nail changes: A red flag for connective tissue disease.Int J Acad Med 2017;3:197-201

How to cite this URL:
Fegley MW, Duarte-Chavez R, Fegley W, Stone LE, Singh A, Nanda S. Finger nail changes: A red flag for connective tissue disease. Int J Acad Med [serial online] 2017 [cited 2021 Jun 25 ];3:197-201
Available from:

Full Text


We report a 68-year-old female who presented to the cardiology clinic with ventricular tachycardia with specific finger nail abnormalities. The patient had multiple underlying connective tissue disorders and pulmonary fibrosis. There are multiple finger nail changes that are indicative of connective tissue disorders. We review specific finger nail changes and provide a review of diagnostic criteria including clinical signs and symptoms and further tests needed to rule out or confirm underlying connective tissue disease (CTD).

 Case Report

A 68-year-old woman presented to the cardiology clinic for episodic ventricular tachycardia. The patient had a 30–plus-year history of systemic lupus erythematous (SLE), Sjögren's syndrome (SS), and dermatomyositis with interstitial lung disease. Her underlying medical therapy included the following: Prednisone 10 mg, hydroxychloroquine 200 mg, and mycophenolate mofetil 2500 mg daily. Her past medical history included (1) well controlled hypertension-therapy hydrochlorothiazide 12.5 mg, (2) chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease-therapy omeprazole 20 mg, (3) sicca syndrome-therapy 5 mg pilocarpine and finally, (4) long standing hypothyroid-therapy levothyroxine 100 mcg.

Her physical examination was remarkable for finger nail changes including the following: (1) Multiple dilated capillaries around fingernails, (2) erythema of proximal and periungual fingernail [Figure 1], and (3) rash on dorsal surface of hands, knuckles, and wrist. Cardiopulmonary examination was unremarkable. An in-office electrocardiogram was normal sinus rhythm. Prior antibody work up was positive for antinuclear antibodies, anti-SS antibody A, and cyclic citrullinated peptide. More recently, she had a weakly positive antisignal recognition particle and weakly positive p140. The most recent pulmonary function tests revealed forced expiratory volume 1 second (FEV1) 84% predicted, forced expiratory capacity (FEC) 75%, and FEV1/FEC ratio of 86% corresponding to mild restrictive disease. Diffusion limit of carbon dioxide was 43% predicted corresponding to moderate to severe diffusion capacity dysfunction. She was on verapamil 120 mg extended release daily and was stable as far as ventricular tachycardia was concerned.{Figure 1}


CTDs are common, often overlap, require lifelong care and are associated with numerous organ involvement.[1] CTD commonly affects many organs, including skin and fingernails. In a case–control study by Tunc et al., 190 patients with known CTD were enrolled and compared against two control groups. For those with SLE, a control group of young healthy patients was used, whereas patients with other CTD were compared against healthy elderly controls.[2] The study found fingernail changes are highly specific for CTDs (98–100%) but have poor sensitivity (13–31%).[2] The results are summarized in [Table 1]. The study concluded that finger nail changes do not correlate with disease activity with the following two exceptions: Splinter hemorrhage-SLE and increase in transverse nail curvature-systemic sclerosis (SSc). Two additional studies have attempted to determine the frequency of nail-fold changes in patients with CTD. Both studies corroborate with the study by Tunc in that nail changes have poor sensitivity for CTD.[3],[4] Fingernail changes are not exclusive to CTD, and an alternative diagnosis should be sought if fingernail changes are seen outside of those listed in [Table 1].[5]{Table 1}

Reynaud's phenomena can also be associated with various CTD, including SSc. Nailfold videocapillaroscopy (NVC) and analysis of red blood cell velocity offers a noninvasive indicator that is both sensitive, specific, and prognostic for underlying SSc. Initially, capillary morphology and analysis with microscopy appeared to offer little relation between clinical features.[6] A specific classification of NVC has been developed by Carpentier and Maricq further modified by Bergman et al. to classify a pattern consistent with SSc.[7],[8] Cutolo et al. further sub classified the NVC into early, active, and late stage prognostic indicators that may be predictive of organ involvement in SSc based on capillary arrangement, quantity and level of organization.[9],[10] Red blood cell velocity offers an additional diagnostic tool separate from NVC. In a study by Mugii et al. analyzing patients who were healthy versus known SSc, even patients with normal NSV with SSc were found to have a 51.7% reduction in red blood cell velocity.[11]

The pathogenesis of fingernail changes from CTD involves antibodies which alter the underlying structure and vessel supply of the proximal nail and nailbed. When detecting the previously mentioned nail changes in [Table 1], the physician should attempt to elicit other signs and symptoms of CTD and perform further evaluation detailed in [Table 2].[12],[13],[14],[15],[16],[17] If clinical signs and symptoms are detected, further laboratory testing can be useful as outlined in [Table 3].[17] If underlying Reynaud's phenomena is detected, sending the patient for NVC and red blood cell velocity analysis is warranted for early diagnosis of underlying SSc. These test also have the additional benefit of prognostic indications of SSc.{Table 2}{Table 3}{Figure 2}


CTD can be difficult to diagnose, and often times patients can present with devastating signs and symptoms. However, the finger nail changes listed in [Table 2] are an indicator for further investigation and workup for underlying CTD. If the healthcare provider suspects underlying CTD in the absence of finger nail changes, a workup is still indicated due to poor sensitivity of such changes.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


1Gaubitz M. Epidemiology of connective tissue disorders. Rheumatology (Oxford) 2006;45 Suppl 3:iii3-4.
2Tunc SE, Ertam I, Pirildar T, Turk T, Ozturk M, Doganavsargil E. Nail changes in connective tissue diseases: Do nail changes provide clues for the diagnosis? J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 2007;21:497-503.
3Elmansour I, Chiheb S, Benchikhi H. Nail changes in connective tissue diseases: A study of 39 cases. Pan Afr Med J 2014;18:150.
4Nabil P, Rao R, Shenoi S, Balachandran C. Nail unit in collagen vascular diseases: A clinical, histopathological and direct immunofluorescence study. Indian Journal of Dermatology 2006;41:265-8.
5Fawcett RS, Linford S, Stulberg DL. Nail abnormalities: Clues to systemic disease. Am Fam Physician 2004;69:1417-24.
6Lefford F, Edwards JC. Nailfold capillary microscopy in connective tissue disease: A quantitative morphological analysis. Ann Rheum Dis 1986;45:741-9.
7Carpentier PH, Maricq HR. Microvasculature in systemic sclerosis. Rheum Dis Clin North Am 1990;16:75-91.
8Bergman R, Sharony L, Schapira D, Nahir MA, Balbir-Gurman A. The handheld dermatoscope as a nail-fold capillaroscopic instrument. Arch Dermatol 2003;139:1027-30.
9Smith V, Riccieri V, Pizzorni C, Decuman S, Deschepper E, Bonroy C, et al. Nailfold capillaroscopy for prediction of novel future severe organ involvement in systemic sclerosis. J Rheumatol 2013;40:2023-8.
10Cutolo M, Sulli A, Secchi ME, Paolino S, Pizzorni C. Nailfold capillaroscopy is useful for the diagnosis and follow-up of autoimmune rheumatic diseases. A future tool for the analysis of microvascular heart involvement? Rheumatology (Oxford, England) 2006;45 Suppl 4:iv43-6.
11Mugii N, Hasegawa M, Hamaguchi Y, Tanaka C, Kaji K, Komura K, et al. Reduced red blood cell velocity in nail-fold capillaries as a sensitive and specific indicator of microcirculation injury in systemic sclerosis. Rheumatology (Oxford) 2009;48:696-703.
12Arnett FC, Edworthy SM, Bloch DA, McShane DJ, Fries JF, Cooper NS, et al. The American Rheumatism Association 1987 revised criteria for the classification of rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Rheum 1988;31:315-24.
13Tan EM, Cohen AS, Fries JF, Masi AT, McShane DJ, Rothfield NF, et al. The 1982 revised criteria for the classification of systemic lupus erythematosus. Arthritis Rheum 1982;25:1271-7.
14Shiboski SC, Shiboski CH, Criswell L, Baer A, Challacombe S, Lanfranchi H, et al. American College of Rheumatology classification criteria for Sjögren's syndrome: A data-driven, expert consensus approach in the Sjögren's International Collaborative Clinical Alliance cohort. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken) 2012;64:475-87.
15van den Hoogen F, Khanna D, Fransen J, Johnson SR, Baron M, Tyndall A, et al. 2013 classification criteria for systemic sclerosis: An American College of Rheumatology/European League against Rheumatism collaborative initiative. Arthritis Rheum 2013;65:2737-47.
16Hunder GG. Atlas of Rheumatology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2002. p. vii, 227.
17Bolognia J, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV. Dermatology. Philadelphia, London: Elsevier Saunders; 2012. Avaialble from: [Last accessed 2016 Mar 18].