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If you’ve ever nibbled at your fingernails while bored, your thoughts may have turned to a dark possibility worthy of Stephen King. What if you kept nibbling? What if you started biting? Would it be anatomically and psychologically possible to bite your own finger off? What about someone else’s finger?
It’s a question that has consumed TikTok, where some argue biting a finger is as easy as crunching through a carrot. In reality: Yes, you probably can devour a finger, but it’s not comparable to chomping on a vegetable, and gnawing on your own digit would require a substantial commitment to searing pain. Let’s hear from an expert.
A Game of Bones
Unlike bites to soft tissue, like an earlobe, biting through a finger requires teeth to handle the finger bones, called phalanges (plural) or phalanx (singular). While it’s not terribly difficult to bite through arteries, tendons, and skin, the bones of the hand are sturdy. “They’re probably the size of a small Sharpie in width,” Karan Desai, MD, a hand surgeon at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute, tells Mental Floss. “The three of them are connected by joints. They’re pretty thick, honestly. Maybe a centimeter. It’s hard bone. The younger you are, the harder they are.”
It’s still possible to chomp through them, according to Desai, though it’s certainly easier for animals other than humans. “We see it more often in animal bites,” he says, citing alligators as one of the perpetrators in his practice. (It’s Florida, after all.) “It takes quite a bit of force to completely amputate a finger. We do have a ton of dog bites that cause complete amputation of the fingers. So, it’s possible [for a human] but you’d have to have someone who is pretty vicious to bite with that kind of force.”
For that reason, finger amputations—known as finger avulsions—are most commonly seen when an assailant is able to bite into the joint connecting the phalanges, avoiding the task of having to bite clean through a bone. “It would be a lot easier to bite off through a joint. If you were to bite through bone, you’d have to fracture the bone and then rip it off. That would definitely be harder to do,” Desai says.
Desai has seen plenty of human bite cases involving fingers, and they’ve also been well publicized in media. In September 2009, a 65-year-old man named William Rice was participating in a demonstration in Thousand Oaks, California, advocating against government healthcare reform. Proponents of the reform were also present. One thing led to another, and, as Rice would later admit to police, he struck a man in the face. “I popped him in the nose,” Rice told the press.
The man did not take it lightly. A scuffle ensued, and soon Rice found himself bleeding from his hand and staring at his own severed pinky finger, which had been bitten clean off.
Similar cases have been reported in Fargo, North Dakota, where a bar patron was accused of taking off the tip of a bartender’s finger in 2022; Plymouth, Massachusetts, where a golfer had one of his digits chomped off on the 18th hole in 2018; and in Tavares, Florida, where a man in a park bit off the victim’s finger up to the knuckle in 2022.
For those looking for visual evidence, there’s a 1999 case study in the British Dental Journal, where it was reported that a bar fight resulted in an avulsion. (Be forewarned that a photo of a severed finger with trailing neurovascular bundles is far from appetizing.)
When such attacks occur, Desai says, the severing is likely caused by biting down with molars rather than the canine or incisor (front) teeth. “Molars serve more to crush. The canines and incisors in the front can probably serve to bite through tissue. You need to go through skin, soft tissue, the tendons, and then clamp down and tear the rest. It would be pretty difficult to use the canine and incisors to bite all the way through the bone, as well. You would need to be tearing.”
Single Digit Improvement
Biting off a finger, then, is hardly like biting through a carrot. It’s more of a clamp-and-tear motion, which results in a messy injury that can be difficult to treat. “It’s called replantation, replanting the finger,” Desai says. “If you think about cutting your finger with a sushi knife, and it’s cut right through, there’s a much higher chance of success versus something torn or bitten off. That pulls it out, stretches the small blood vessels, and makes reconstruction of the vessels difficult.”
One advantage of human over animal bites: Humans don’t usually eat the finger, making reattachment a possibility. According to Desai, surgeons will attempt replantation if the finger is vital to the hand, like a thumb. If it’s non-critical or only a small portion, some surgeons may opt to focus on controlling infection—a high-risk complication for human and animal bites—rather than a procedure.
If they do, restoring full function is unlikely; feeling will also be impaired. The goal with such surgery is to restore enough sensation so a person can be alerted to burning or pain.
If you have to have a finger bitten off, opt for the index. “It’s relatively expendable,” Desai says. “It’s nice to have, but if you lost it, the middle finger compensates very well. It takes on the role of the index finger. The ring and small fingers are used for gripping. If you make a tight fist and your fingers are digging into your palm, the index and middle do fine motions with the thumb. If you lose your index, the middle can still do a fine motion, like holding a pencil or pen.”
Can You Bite Off Your Own Finger?
While hardly acceptable social behavior, biting off someone’s finger is substantially different from biting off one’s own. Desai hasn’t seen it and is uncertain about how that might look.
“It’s possible,” he says. “I’d have a high suspicion of psychiatric history when it comes to biting your own finger off. If you’re totally there and have no psych problems, the pain you’d feel would immediately stop you from going any further. You couldn’t go through the motion of the entire bite. But if you’re not normal in the sense of being under the influence of something, it’s possible.”