Working Healthy

A Steady Hand

Shaky hands may be the result of a medical condition or performance anxiety. If your doctor says you’re fine, then learn to relax and slow down.

Kelly S., a nail technician from New York, gets nervous three days before a nail appointment — so nervous her hands shake. Although she did well in school, when she went to work in a salon she felt unwanted, compared her work and speed to technicians who had been in the industry for eight years, and lacked a support system in the salon to help her overcome these feelings. A month later, her nerves and the shaking got the best of her and she quit.

“In school we all practiced on each other,” Kelly says. “We never had to work on strangers. In the salon, the other technicians weren’t friendly or helpful. I know it takes time to build a clientele, but .1 always worried about not having one. I guess I have low self-esteem.”

Kelly believes that discussing her nervousness with a client helped lessen her fear. As soon as she told a customer about her shaking problem, she found it disappeared. But her fear of failure hampers her from getting back into a salon and doing the job at all, a common problem with perfectionists and their unrealistic expectations for themselves.


What causes the body to shake? Physical reactions to perceived threats are called the “fight or flight” response. In such a reaction, the body produces two hormones — adrenaline and noradrenaline — that cause the heart to beat faster, breathing to quicken, and blood pressure to rise.

Jo Livingston of Nails Chicago Salon in Chicago attributes the problem of shaky hands to the stresses of long days, poor posture, and crabby clients.

Though researchers aren’t clear to what extent relaxation techniques have on an individual’s overall health, such techniques can reduce the stress and physical maladies that lead to shakiness.

Livingston uses a relaxation technique she calls grounding. She encourages technicians to take a five-minute break between clients at least once a day to sit, reflect, and be alone.

It’s important to recognize when your body is responding to stress and to learn how to relax. The best way is to slow down — and that doesn’t necessarily refer to the number of clients you see or how many activities you do outside of work. The point is to minimize your stress over the activities — you control the activities, not be controlled by them.

Everyone has nights when sleep is a stranger. Sometimes it’s because your body is tense and using all its energy to contract the muscles The next time you catch yourself lying in bed like this, lie straight and focus on your toes or feet. Tense the muscles in them as much as possible and release. Move to your calf muscles, then your thighs, your arms, and on up to the scalp. If you catch muscles tensing up that have already been through the sequence, go back to that muscle group and start over. This technique can eventually help you avoid muscle tension.

Exercise can help you reduce anxiety and muscle tension, strengthen your cardiovascular system, and improve your coping skills. Doctors suggest at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. Even activities such as gardening and walking help loosen muscles, maintain flexibility, and work out your heart.

If you manage to control your stress but you’re still nervous or shaky, your problem may be a lack of confidence. When Lianne Koziol, a technician in Rehoboth, Mass., started her career with Mary Kay Cosmetics, the motto was “Fake it ‘til you make it.” But when she started doing nails, Koziol suffered from insecurity and a bad case of nerves. Her saving grace was a self-esteem class.


Don’t automatically attribute shaky hands and cold or numb fingers to nervousness if the symptoms don’t diminish and if you don’t feel nervous.

Many medical conditions can contribute to shakiness and hamper one’s work as a nail technician, and most are not serious and are treatable. For example, if your shaking hands are accompanied by nervousness, sweatiness, and heart tremors, you may have a thyroid disorder. A doctor takes a blood sample to make this diagnosis. A thyroid imbalance is controllable with medication.

Many people claim to have hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which they blame for their fatigue, light headedness, or shakiness. However, hypoglycemia is a rare condition signaling the body’s inability to regulate sugar.

Normally, blood sugar levels are controlled by the liver, which releases insulin, a chemical that helps the body use the sugar. Some foods, even non-sugary ones, cause a greater amount of insulin to be released by some people’s livers, which can further drop blood sugar. However, studies have shown that most people suffering from fatigue, light-headedness, or shakiness don’t have low blood sugar.

Shaky hands can be caused by a neurological disorder, but unless accompanied by other symptoms, it isn’t a serious problem except that it may prohibit the detail work necessary for a nail technician. Masami Kitano, a neurologist in Torrance, Calif., says that many people worry that they have Parkinson’s disease, a progressive, degenerative tremor and weakening of the muscles. Young technicians needn’t worry. “Parkinson’s strikes older people,” reassures Kitano. “The tremor in Parkinson’s patients is often called ‘pill rolling,’ because it looks like patients are rolling something between their fingers and thumb. If you ask them to stop shaking, they can — as long as they focus on it. The shaking resumes when their atten­tion is diverted.

“The side to side hand tremor that younger people often have — including those in their 20s — is called an essential tremor. Doctors don’t know the cause of these tremors, but 60% of the cases are hereditary,” says Kitano. He says that the harder one tries to control the tremors, the worse they become. It makes sense, then, that many patients report an increase in the tremors while performing a task using the hands.

There is no cure for these tremors, though some medications can alleviate the problem temporarily. Many patients choose not to take medication on a full-time, basis, however, because of long term side effects. For example, inderol is valuable in halting the shaking but it drains people of their energy. Valium, a tranquilizer, is habit-forming. People with essential tremors should reduce or eliminate caffeine, nicotine, and stress from their lives, says Kitano.

A problem people tend to ignore at mild stages is the cold and numb fingers accompanying Raynaud’s syndrome. Cold temperatures often provoke attacks in which fingers turn white, then blue, becoming cool to the touch and numb from a lack of circulation. As circulation returns, the fingers turn red and throb. An episode may vary from less than a minute to several hours. Emotional stress, which lowers hand temperature in most people, may spark episodes even in warm surroundings.

Primary Raynaud’s syndrome is unrelated to other medical conditions and attacks mostly women between the ages of 15 and 20. The phenomenon is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to cold. Normal blood flow in the hands, feet, ears, and nose speeds up heat loss. In a cold setting, the blood vessels in these areas constrict (get smaller), allowing the body’s core temperature to stabilize. In Raynaud’s, however, the constriction is more like a sudden spasm.

If you show signs of Raynaud’s, you should see a doctor even if your problems aren’t severe, because secondary Raynaud’s may be caused by another illness, and early detection always promotes better health. Also, many factors increase susceptibility to the secondary condition, including exposure to chemicals and repeated physical wear and tear on the hands. Pneumatic drills or similar vibrating machinery can damage blood vessels. Since you’re certainly exposed to chemicals, stress on your hands, and possible equipment use, you need to examine your options.

Keep warm so your body will be less likely to divert blood away from the extremities. Several loose layers of clothes are better insulators than one heavy layer. Insulated glasses and cups may provide relief from indoor attacks, as may the use of gloves when handling or preparing cold foods. If you get cold at night, you might try wearing mittens and socks to bed.

Certain exercises may help the blood vessels “learn” to stay open in cold surroundings. You can train your body by sitting in a cold area with your hands in warm water. Repeat this exercise three to six times daily, every other day, for about a month. This exercise may condition the blood vessels in your hands to stay open, since they will be “warm” even if the surrounding air is cold. Although the effects may diminish over time, you can retrain the response.

If you’ve been suffering from shaky, numb, or tense hands and fingers, think long and hard about the potential causes of your problem. Are you nervous when you do nails? Is servicing nails the only time you have this problem, or does it occur more often? Take the necessary steps to lessen your problem, whether through a trip to the doctor or simple learned relax­ation techniques. Your shaky hands don’t have to conquer you.

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