We’ve all done it. Whether it’s from flipping through a magazine too quickly or licking the edge of an envelope so it can be sealed shut, we’ve all experienced the wrath of a papercut. One teeny cut that barely scratches the surface is enough to cause an incredible pain and send us into a profanity-filled fury. The injury site doesn’t seem worthy of the amount of pain: The wound should look more like a Quentin Tarantino film for the amount of pain it causes, which begs the question—why does a papercut hurt so badly?

When it comes to the notion of dissecting papercuts, the first thing we need to know is that we don’t really know exactly why they hurt so much, and that some of the myths that exist are just that: myths.

“There’s a common idea that the reason is nerve density, that there are more nerves in the fingers than in other parts of the body,” said Gabe Neal, MD, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “There’s not a whole lot of proof in the literature that proves that we have more nerve fibers in our fingers to explain why papercuts hurt so much.”

While there is research to show we feel pain in our fingertips better than other parts of the body, there’s not a lot in the literature proving it is because of nerve density.

In fact, given what we know about pain and nerves, Neal believes it’s more than just dealing with an abundance of nerves. “The way we sense pain is more complex than we realize,” Neal said. “Our brain is constantly sending and receiving signals that relay information to ‘paint a picture’ of what we feel—such as pain or pressure.”

And because the brain devotes so much effort to analyzing and projecting a perfect, high-definition picture of what we feel in our fingers, it’ll do a great job noticing if there’s a cut, especially if it doesn’t damage the nerve endings or pain receptors.

To understand what this means, imagine these painful scenarios (but maybe not too vividly): If you crush your fingers in a door and on your opposite hand you get a papercut—which may hurt more? It won’t always be the bone-bruised hand—even though it will probably require more TLC than the other. That’s because the door could have cut some of these nerves, and your brain isn’t getting the clearest picture of the injury—whereas your other hand is injured enough to hurt, but the nerves are healthy enough to send a very clear “red alert” to your brain—which is producing a brilliant picture of your injury in 4K definition.

However, you may notice that the cut keeps hurting, for which there are some other less neurological reasons that we could blame. Getting a slight cut on your finger, lips or tongue is likely to hurt a lot more since you use these parts of your body frequently—thus reopening the wound.

While it may be just a small cut, there is a preferred method of treating your wound after the papercut.

“Wash the cut as soon as you can with soap and water to help reduce the risk of infection,” Neal said. “Keep the wound clean, and, if possible, for a few days cover it with a small bandage to cushion the wound and limit reopening.”

These papercuts are trivial, painful and just embarrassing (you’re actually losing to paper in a game of rock, paper, finger), and Neal also pointed to the emotional component.

“Paper cuts remind us that no matter how many times we have performed even a simple task, we are capable of accidentally hurting ourselves,” Neal said. “If that makes us a little more sympathetic to our neighbor’s pains, and a little humbler, then maybe paper cuts do us some good too.”

Maybe so, but we’d bet that you would still trade away some sympathy if it means you don’t have to get a papercut again.

— Dominic Hernandez

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