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Anatomy and Physiology

of the (fingertip) pulp

Pulp Facts
Christian Dumontier, MD, PhD
Centre de la Main, Guadeloupe

Thanks to Francesco
Brunelli, MD

Pulp Anatomy: ten fingers, should we
be afraid of it ?

1st message: All the fingertip pulps
are identical

A dorsal basement

A dorsal basement
Nail plate and nail structures

Nails are both a help or a problem to fingertip physiology

A dorsal basement
Nail plate and nail structures

Bone

Bony anatomy

The distal phalanx
is divided in three
parts: base, shaft
and tuft

Li

Ann

Mi

Ind

The distal phalanx

Is surrounded by multiples fibrous structures that hold
the nail apparatus dorsally, the pulp septa volarly

The distal phalanx has evolved to allow
prehension
Monkey

Somewhere between 3 and 2
million years ago, the robust
parts of the bony distal
phalanx that evolved
characterized the early
hominids.

Hadar,
3,5 M BC

Gorilla

Olduvai
1,8 M BC

Man

Neanderthal

Early man must have
exploited this feature as he
became a tool user.

Shrewsbury MM, Johnson RK. Form, function, and evolution of the distal phalanx. J Hand Surg 1983; 8: 475-479.

Distal phalanx

Distal phalanx length is ≈ 11 mm and its width is ≈ 7mm at the tuft,
and around 3.0 mm at the shaft on a PA or a lateral view, similar on
radiographs and CT (2, 3)

Length of the medullary canal is, on average, two fifths of the external
length (1)

Most headless screws are too large to fit into the diaphysis (2)

1- Schulter-Ellis F, Lazar GT. Internal morphology of human phalanges. J Hand Surg 1984; 9A: 490-495.
2- Mintalucci D, Lutsky KF, Matzon JL, Rivlin M, Niver G, Beredjiklian PK. Distal Interphalangeal Joint Bony
Dimensions Related to Headless Compression Screw Sizes. J Hand Surg Am. 2014;39(6):1068-1074
3- Wang WL, Darke M, Goitz RJ, Andrews CL, Fowler JR. A Comparison of Plain Radiographs and Computed
Tomography for Determining Canal Diameter of the Distal Phalanx. J Hand Surg Am. 2015;40(7):1404-1409

A dorsal basement
Nail plate and nail structures

Bone

Flexor tendon

FDP insertion

Insertion is widest proximally and
tapered distally

Length and width were 6.2 mm
(5.1-7. mm) and 7.9 mm (6.9-8.4
mm), w/o difference regarding
finger or sex

Insertion distance from the
proximal joint surface is 1.2 mm
(range, 0.4-2.1 mm) due to the
insertion of the volar plate
Chepla KJ, Goitz RJ, Fowler JR. Anatomy of the Flexor Digitorum Profundus Insertion.
J Hand Surg Am. 2015;40(2):240-244.

FDP insertion

Average surface area is
20% of the distal phalanx
(15-27%)

Calculated centroid is 3.6
mm (2.5-5.1 mm), ≈ 20% of
phalanx length (where to
place anchors !)
20%

Chepla KJ, Goitz RJ, Fowler JR. Anatomy of the Flexor Digitorum Profundus Insertion.
J Hand Surg Am. 2015;40(2):240-244.

FDP insertion at the distal phalanx (magnification x 6.3)

FDP bony insertion is partially
responsible for vascularization of
the tendon through two types of
vascular inflow

Plus the vinculum brevis proximally

Leversedge FJ, Ditsios K, Goldfarb CA, Silva MJ, Gelberen RH, Boyer MI. Vascular Anatomy of the Human
Flexor Digitorum Profundus Tendon Insertion. J Hand Surg 2002;27A:806–812

The pulp itself is not homogenous

It is not filled
with fat (would
be unstable),
nor divided by
waterproof
septa

The pulp as a closed space (Kanavel 1912)

According to Kanavel the pulp is a
« closed sac » with multiples septa

This is partially true

Infection (or hematoma) stays in
the pulp which is closed
proximally

But during surgery there is no
need to break all the septa to
drain the infection

The pulp is separated by
multiples prominent rigid
collagen fibers that hold the
pulp in place, much as a
parachutist is attached to a
parachute

Uniformity of the fat distribution
(in columns) within the fingertip.

Pulp Nonfiction: Microscopic Anatomy of the Digital Pulp Space. Hauck RM, Camp L, Ehrlich HP, Saggers GC,
Banducci DR, Graham WP. Plast. Reconstr. Surg. 2004; 113: 536-539.
Shrewsbury MM, Johnson RK. Form, function, and evolution of the distal phalanx. J Hand Surg 1983; 8: 475-479.

Nerves and vessels

The collagen fibers allow for penetration
of vessels and nerves through the pulp

Whose anatomical distribution
sometimes allows for distal replantation

Arteries

Usually the collateral artery
divides into three branches at the
level of the DIP joint

One from the dorsal nail wall, one
for the nail bed and one for the
pulp

Arteries of the pulp

A palmar arch is present in
95,5% of 67 digits

Average diameter is 0.8 mm

Smith DO, Oura C, Kimura C, Toshimori K. Artery anatomy and tortuosity in the distal finger. J Hand Surg 1991;
16A: 297-302

Arteries

Palmar arch average distance is
of 13 mm from the most distal
skin

Located at the level of the
germinal matrix in 73,4% of
cases and distal to it in 26,6%

The arch is protected by the bony
prominence which serve as a bumper and
is located at the distal base of the slope

Smith DO, Oura C, Kimura C, Toshimori K. Artery anatomy and tortuosity in the distal finger. J Hand Surg 1991;
16A: 297-302

Arteries

A single dominant artery is
present in 98,5% of cases
and is usually tortuous
(protective anatomy and
allow for local flaps
advancement)

Smith DO, Oura C, Kimura C, Toshimori K. Artery anatomy and tortuosity in the distal finger. J Hand Surg 1991;
16A: 297-302

Distal arterial distribution

Non systematic

Through a very rich
anastomotic subcutaneous
patchwork

That allows the design of
numerous flaps
Elliot D, Moiemen NS, Jigjinni VS
(1995). The neurovascular
Tranquilli-Leali flap. Journal of
Hand Surgery, 20B: 815–823.

Veins

Numerous, non systematic

Larger vessels are palmar
distal to the DIP

A single vein is found in 68%
at the joint line and in 96% of
time is > 0.5 mm.

Smith DO, Oura C, Kimura C, Toshimori K. The distal venous anatomy of the finger.
J Hand Surg 1991; 16A: 303-307

Nerves

5% branch off proximal to the DIP
crease, while 78% are branching
distally whatever the long finger

61% had a terminal trifurcation,
19% four to five terminal branches
and 20% a bifurcation.

Average thickness at the level of
the DIP joint is 0.85 mm (index),
0.84 mm (long), 0.72 mm (ring) and
0.49 mm (little).

Zenn MR, Hoffman L, Latrenta G, Hotchkiss R. Variations in digital nerve anatomy. J Hand Surg 1992; 17A:
1033-1036.
Kim J, Lee YH, Kim MB, Rhee SH, Baek GH. Anatomy of the direct small branches of the proper digital nerve of the
fingers: A cadaveric study. JPRAS 2014; 67, 1129-1135

The epidermis

0.7-0.9 mm thick

Covered with fingerprints
which are unique to an
individual

Gorillas, chimpanzees and
koalas all also have
fingerprints

Fingerprints appear at 10
weeks in the foetus as the
basal layer is crunched
between the dermis and
epidermis and, unlike special
diseases, are permanent

Formula to calculate the
formation of fingerprints

Kücken M, Newell AC . Fingerprint formation. Journal of Theoretical Biology 235 (2005) 71–83

Pulp mensurations

Pulp length is 27 mm (index and
middle), 26 mm (annular) and 22
mm (little)

Pulp width is 15 mm

Pulp volume is ≈ 2000 mm3, ≈ 55%
of total fingertip volume

Pulp circonference is :
(π x 15)/2 = 23,5 mm
Murai M, Lau H-K, Pereira BP, Pho RWH. A cadaver study on volume and surface area of the fingertip. J
Hand Surg 1997; 22A: 935-941)

Physiology of the pulp

Multiple and complex

Prehension which implies

Sensation which implies

Sensibility

Sensory receptors

Stability

Nerve fibers

Strength

Two different functional parts of the pulp

Distal: From the tuft to the
hyponychium

Proximal: from the DIP crease
to the proximal part of the tuft

Limited laterally by Flint’s
interphalangeal ligament

Thicker, More mobile for
prehension

Shrewsbury MM, Johnson RK: The fascia of the distal phalanx. J Bone Joint Surg (Am) 1975; 57:784-88

Prehension includes pushing and pulling forces

Pulling forces

One finger tip: 59,5 N (+/- 25)

One knuckle: 94,5 N (+/- 28),
an increase of 58%

Pushing forces

Force transmission is
modulated by the nonlinear
stiffening of the pulp.

The pulp is compliant at forces
less than 1 N (82% of the
displacement) and stiffens
rapidly at higher forces.

Cort JA, Potvin JR. Maximum isometric finger pull forces. Int J Industr. Ergonomics 2011; 41: 91-95
Serina ER, Mockensturm E, Rempel D. A structural model of the forced compression of the fingertip.
Journal of Biomechanics 31 (1998) 639—646

Role of the proximal pulp in
prehension

Thickness and mobility of the
proximal pulp allows the soft
tissue to firmly mold about an
object and to hold the object
against the buttress of the
distal pull

All structures are useful for prehension

Fingerprints are useful to improve grasping, and make our ability
to regulate pressure and movement more precise.

Koala

2

Sweat glands are numerous (500 / cm ) and exit onto the
epidermal ridges. There are no pores between the ridges, though
sweat tends to spill into them.

The collagen fibers stabilize the skin to the underlying phalanx

Uniform repartition of the fat

The shape of the phalanx is also adapted to prehension with its
large tuft

Pan

Homo

Pulp of a double bassist
Randall WC. Quantification and regional distribution of sweat glands in man. J Clin Invest. 1946 Sep; 25(5): 761–767.

Distal pulp is mostly made for sensation

2/3 of nerve fibers are sensory fibers: « the pulp
is the eye of the hand »

A Weber two-point discrimination test over 8 mm
at the pulp is equivalent to a non-functional pulp

2

Over 2500 receptors / cm at the
pulp: Merkel’s cells

Merkel’s cells are oval receptor cells
associated with the sense of light touch
discrimination of shapes and textures.

They are found in the stratum basale (at
the bottom of sweat duct ridges).

They are associated with slowly adapting
(SA1) somatosensory nerve fibers.

They are stimulated by low pressure and
their answer is maintained during the
stimulus that allow to differentiate
between two points (Reading Braille for
example)

2

Over 2500 receptors / cm at the pulp:
Meissner’s receptors

Meissner’s corpuscles are rapidly
adaptative receptors with highest
sensitivity when sensing vibrations
between 10 and 50 Hz.

They are located under the epidermis
and are stimulated by friction,
especially the speed of friction (after a
few minutes we do not feel that we are
wearing gloves, for example).

Their number on the fingertips drops
fourfold between the ages of 12 and
50 and this correlates well with the
age-related loss in touch sensitivity for
small probes (Semmes-Wenstein).
Thornbury JM, Mistretta CM. Tactile Sensitivity as a Function of Age J Gerontol (1981) 36 (1): 34-39

2

Over 2500 receptors / cm at the pulp:
Pacinian corpuscles

Pacinian’s corpuscles are located
into the dermis and hypodermic
and are mechanoreceptors only
responding to vibration (optimal
sensitivity is 250 Hz) and
variation of pression

The vibrational role may be used
to detect surface texture, e.g.,
rough vs. smooth.

Lamellar corpuscles are rapidly
adapting (phasic) receptors that
detect gross pressure changes
and vibrations in the skin

Distal pulp is also made for precise prehension

The papillary skin ridges are
transverse to assist in
resistance of dorsal-palmar
loads during precise grip

Shrewsbury MM, Johnson RK. Form, function, and evolution of the distal phalanx. J Hand Surg 1983; 8:
475-479.

Not to forget its social role

The skin is a sensory organ
for Touch, Vibration, Heat,
Cold, pain,….

It also carries socio-sexual,
and emotional sensations

Nor its artistic role

The ideal pulp should be

Thick

Stable

Sensible

Painless

}

but not
too
much !

How does a pulp regenerate ?

Cells that re- populate a regenerated
mammalian fingertip are tissue resident

There is limited dedifferentiation.

Circulating blood cells do not appear to
contribute.

Roshan A. Grant I. Lessons for Adult Fingertip Regeneration: Glimpses From Basic Research. J Hand Surg
2012;37A:1287–1290.

To be wiser: Why pulp fiction ?

It refers to books (pulps
magazines) in the first half of the
XXth century that were made
with cheap paper (woodpulp) and
sold at low prices - most of them
were fiction

It has been said that it brought
lectures and modernism in the
population

Famous « pulps » include: Tarzan,
Conan, Zorro,…