A Day in the Life of the Human Hand

The human hand is remarkable for its many roles, especially this one. pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/Shutterstock

Pity the human hand, one of the truly unsung heroes of the body. We pamper our hair, apply elixirs to our faces, crunch our abs, stretch our legs, eat for our hearts, and feed our minds — but what do we do for our hands? Most of us generally ignore these incredibly essential body parts that sprout from our wrists.

If we had a wrist-cam, we could bear witness to the endless indispensable tasks that our multi-fingered workhorses perform. In lieu of that, here's a tour of a day in the life of the human hand.

Wakes up

Henrik Winther Andersen/Shutterstock

In 1959, Westclox introduced an alarm clock with a snooze button, and our hands have been fumbling for that button — hoping for an extra nine minutes of sleep — ever since. More than a third of American adults hit the snooze button every morning an average of three times, so for many this marks the first time each day when the hand does the brain's bidding.

Flosses teeth

Doruk Sikman/Shutterstock

Each hand contains 29 major and minor bones, 29 major joints, at least 123 named ligaments, 48 nerves and 30 named arteries — all of which work in concert with the muscles to help perform fine motor skills such as getting dental floss between those pesky back molars.

Shakes other hands

Archeological records show that handshaking was practiced in ancient Greece as far back as the 5th century B.C. Experts believe that the handshake began as a gesture of peace — proof that there were no weapons in anyone's hands. More recently, researchers have been working to create a robot with the most human handshake.

Touches dirty things


Cold and flu germs are most commonly spread when you touch a contaminated surface; the worst offending germ spot in the office is the copy machine. For other areas to touch with caution.

Gets washed

washing hands with soap and water
Wash your hands before handling food to help spread the contamination of salmonella. (Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Washing your hands is the best way to prevent the spread of infection and illness. When washing your hands, use running water and soap and be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing for at least 20 seconds, and humming the "Happy Birthday" song (preferably in your head) from beginning to end two times if you need a timer. Then rinse. (How hot does water need to be when you wash your hands?)

Holds a meal

Jill Chen/Shutterstock

Using the hands to eat in Western culture became acceptable in some cases during the 18th century when John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, devised the handheld meal that he became famous for. A profligate gambler, he created the sandwich as a convenient meal that could be held in the hands to fuel his extended bouts at the gaming table.

Can't stay away from the face

Your hands love your face. On average, most of us touch our faces one to three times every five minutes, which adds up to between 200 and 600 times a day.

Expresses distress


The hands are our go-to body parts for expressing stress, nervousness and dismay. Clenching, grabbing, wringing, squeezing, cracking and tapping all do much to help quell the nerves. To achieve these finger movements, the hand relies on muscles; but the 35 muscles that control the fingers are not actually located in the fingers! They are located in the palm and up in the mid forearm, and are connected to the finger bones by tendons, which pull and direct the digits.

Offers a helping hand

baby bird
Handling a baby bird won't drive its mother away for good, but it's still not a good idea. Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA/Wikimedia Commons

We are commonly instructed not to touch baby birds because mama bird can smell the human hand and will quickly abandon said baby bird. It's not true. Birds do not have a strong sense of smell and helping a baby bird in need will not automatically subject it to the avian orphanage. Here's how to care for a stunned bird.

Displays remarkable coordination

How do our hands know how to perform complicated tasks like playing complex piano arrangements? About a quarter of the motor cortex in the human brain (the part of the brain that controls all movement in the body) is devoted to the muscles of the hands.

Phones home

Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock

Cellphone use is as contagious as yawning, which leads us to picking up our wee little telecommunication computers even more frequently. On average, teens send a stunning 2,779 texts per month, while adults talk on their cellphones from 650 to 1,300 minutes per month — meaning, the hand is a super busy manipulator of the mobile phone. It also means that the hands come into contact with a veritable zoo of germs and bacteria that lurk on the phone, including Staphylococcus aureus, boils, sinusitis and food poisoning. In one study, British researchers found 18 times more bacteria on cellphones than on the toilet flusher in a men's lavatory.

Provides nails for biting


Fingernails grow between one-half to four inches per year, and three times as fast as toenails. The record for the longest fingernails belongs to Lee Redmond, who started growing them in 1979. By 2008, they had reached a length of 28 feet and four inches. Redmond was obviously not a nail biter, but for those who are, consider hypnotherapy to help break the habit.


Thumb wrestling
Thumb wrestling. Cate Frost/Shutterstock

The thumb is controlled by nine individual muscles, which are controlled by all three major hand nerves and can move in such complicated ways that there are six separate descriptive terms designated for each particular directions of movement from the joint at the base of the thumb.

Brings food to the mouth

We didn’t always have forks. The first appearance of the utensil in the West was in 11th-century Venice. As the story goes, the Venetian clergy was horrified when they first saw a Byzantine princess using her fork, viewing it as an act of defying God. Said one clergyman, "God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks — his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating." More recently, some upscale American restaurants have started to encourage eating with the hands, and British etiquette bible Debrett’s has now issued a 10-point guide to modern dining manners for eating with the hands.

Falls asleep

Many people experience the sensation of pins and needles in one or both hands when sleeping. The cause is often compression of one or both of the main nerves that work to support the hands. These nerves, the median and ulnar, extend all the way from the neck to the hands. If there is pressure on them at any point along the way, your hands may experience the feeling of "being asleep."