An important nail sign of systemic disease linked with underlying pulmonary, cardiovascular, neoplastic, infectious, hepatobiliary, mediastinal, endocrine, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Digital clubbing may also occur in isolation (e.g., familial clubbing, as an autosomal-dominant trait).
Clubbing is a bulbous uniform swelling of the soft tissue of the terminal phalanx of a digit, with subsequent loss of the normal angle between the nail and nail bed.
The first stage of clubbing is a periungual erythema and a softening of the nail bed; this is followed by an increase in the Lovibond's angle (the angle between the proximal nail fold and the nail plate). Eventually the depth of the distal phalanx increases, and the distal interphalangeal joint may become hyper-extensible.
The Schamroth window test can be used to identify or confirm clubbing. If 2 opposing fingers are held back to back against each other, a diamond-shaped space should normally appear between the nail beds and the nails of the 2 fingers. In clubbing, this space (or window) is missing. Clubbing is usually bilateral, although unilateral clubbing does exist (e.g., axillary artery aneurysm and brachial arteriovenous malformations). It is painless unless associated with underlying conditions such as pulmonary hypertrophic osteoarthropathy. The vast majority of patients are unaware of its presence. However, an understanding of the causation and diseases associated with clubbing alerts the physician to the seriousness of this sign and the need to investigate the patient appropriately.
Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is key. This platelet-derived factor is stimulated by hypoxia and produced in diverse malignancies and conditions that affect circulation. VEGF induces vascular hyperplasia, oedema, and fibroblast or osteoblast proliferation at a peripheral level in the nails. In primary pulmonary conditions such as lung cancer, this is the operative mechanism. When there is extra-pulmonary shunting of blood - for example, in cyanotic heart disease - large megakaryocytic fragments gain access to the systemic circulation and affect distal sites such as the nails. Here, these fragments release growth factors, including VEGF.
Unilateral clubbing secondary to local disorders (e.g., axillary artery aneurysm) is not due to a pulmonary circulation defect. In cases of bronchogenic carcinoma, growth hormone has been implicated as a cause of clubbing. In hypertrophic osteoarthropathy, an additional unknown factor is considered necessary to produce this syndrome; cyanosis may also be required.
Platelet derived growth factor (PDGF) may have a role. Platelets release PDGF in the vasculature of the fingertips. PDGF stimulates growth, vascular permeability, and monocyte and neutrophil chemotaxis, and leads to proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells and fibroblasts, as is seen in clubbing. In addition, clubbing may be stimulated by local arteriovenous anastomoses provoked by neurocirculatory stimuli. Conditions that involve chronic platelet excess (e.g., inflammatory bowel disease) result in peripheral platelet trapping and release of PDGF.
- Lung cancer
- Lung abscess
- Congenital heart disease
- Infective endocarditis
- Hypersensitivity pneumonitis (extrinsic allergic alveolitis)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Interstitial pulmonary fibrosis
- Pleural mesothelioma
- Cavitating pulmonary tuberculosis (TB)
- Pulmonary metastases
- Atrial myxoma
- Axillary artery aneurysm
- Brachial arteriovenous malformations
- Thyroid acropachy
- Severe secondary hyperparathyroidism
- Hodgkin's lymphoma
- Disseminated chronic myelogenous leukaemia
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn's disease
- Primary biliary cholangitis
- Thyroid cancer
- Thymus cancer
- Lipoid pneumonia
- Pulmonary artery sarcoma
- Ulcerative oesophagitis
- Coeliac disease
- Tropical sprue
- Leiomyoma of the oesophagus
- Familial clubbing
- Pachydermoperiostosis (primary hypertrophic osteoarthropathy)
- Secondary hypertrophic osteoarthropathy
- Palmoplantar keratoderma
- Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (an update) and progressive pulmonary fibrosis in adults: an official ATS/ERS/JRS/ALAT clinical practice guideline
- Suspected cancer: recognition and referral
Bronchiectasis: what is it?
Lung cancer (non-small-cell)More Patient leaflets
- Log in or subscribe to access all of BMJ Best Practice
Use of this content is subject to our disclaimer