Category Archives: Biology

Why your hands swell while hiking: the real reason

The myths of why hands swell while hiking

You’re five miles into a hike with a group of friends. You’ve never been hiking before and it sounded adventurous and fun and a great way to to get out and have fun with friends, enjoy being outside, and relax for a bit. And you’re having a great time with the exception of a weird feeling in your hands. Your wedding ring and watch are getting tight and your skin feels taut. Your arms feel bloated and you look down and sure enough you’ve got big old sausage fingers. Are you dying? Do you need to turn around and race to the hospital? Maybe you have cell service and after you post a quick pic to insta you do a quick WebMD search. It says you have heart failure or this weird thing called thrombosis. Now you’re worried and want to go back so you can do more internet searching before you head to the ER. When you get home you dig deeper in your internet searching and get more specific. Instead of just searching hand swelling, you search had hands swell while hiking and find an Outside Magazine article, where you may learn that you’re suffering from hyponatremia. You find a facebook thread of loads of confident expert internet commenters recommending the cure-all tip of hydration or electrolytes.

But nearly all this information you’ll find is absolutely, jarringly, painfully wrong, so I hope this article becomes the one to top out on the google searches so maybe some people will learn the real answer, and learn a real solution. You don’t have heart failure, you’re not alone, and you don’t need to hydrate.

The real reason your hands are swelling

The reason your fingers are swelling is multifaceted but actually pretty simple. Before I explain I just want to clarify again that you’re fine, it happens to everyone and it’s totally normal and reversible.

The vasculature in your body is just a giant network of leaky plumbing. Imagine your body being a greenhouse with a sprinkler hose with hundreds of little holes running through it. The water that didn’t leave the hose is simply looped back around, much like your veins bring blood back to your heart. That hose brings essential fluid to the plants in that garden. Your vasculature in your arm is very similar to that garden hose. It runs down your arm, releases water into that tissue, and the excess water drains back to be recycled. When you step on that garden hose, aka put backpack straps on your upper arms, it increases pressure and increases the rate of that fluid shooting out of the uncountable tiny holes in the hose.

This is one cause of the swelling. Another cause is that the backpack straps essentially dam up the return flow like putting a wall in the trough. Now imagine there’s a drainage trough alongside the garden which returns the excess water from the soil to a pool where it can be recycled back into the hose to continue watering the plants. That is comparable to something in your body called the lymphatic system, which, much like a drainage trough, is a series of ducts which drain extra water in that extravascular space and recycles it back to your heart. By clamping down on those lymphatic ducts with backpack straps, it dams the trough, preventing fluid from draining from that extravascular space.

There’s another thing at play though. And if you’ve ever hiked with trekking poles while still wearing a hand swelling inducing backpack, you may be able to reason through that there has to be something else going on by the fact that trekking poles totally fix the problem. When we hike with trekking poles, even if we have the heaviest of backpack straps constricting our upper arms and shoulders, we don’t experience the swelling really at all. So it can’t just be the backpack straps causing it, especially since some people have this issue without wearing a backpack at all.

Something interesting about the cardiovascular system is that the blood pumping through our arteries, the big pulsating vessels we feel when we check our pulse, are almost entirely pumped by the heart. The heart contracts, much like squeezing a balloon full of water, and blood comes out of the hole. However, when the blood is returning back to the heart to be cycled again the blood is to a significant degree pumped because of contracting muscles in our limbs. They have one way valves in them so when we contract a muscle that is wrapped around a vein, it pumps the blood forward. And when that contraction ceases, the blood is unable to flow backwards. That repetitive contraction of our legs and arms pushes the blood forward, back to our heart. The reason we don’t experience edema in our legs on long hikes isn’t simply because of no backpack straps compressing the vasculature, but mostly because of our constantly contracting and relaxing leg muscles. When we use trekking poles, we continually contract the muscles in our arms and push that blood back toward the heart, preventing pooling by overcoming those barriers created by the backpack straps.

Additionally the trekking poles also likely benefit the swelling by shifting our shoulders frequently, releasing the pressure of the backpack straps on the upper arms, even if just for a second at a time. There could be an electrolyte component to it, but I find it exceedingly unlikely that this is a primary cause because the swelling would be consistent throughout the body, including the face, and I’ve only ever experienced and heard of people having swelling in their arms. Additionally, it takes a tremendous blow to knock the body’s electrolyte balance off. The body is very good at maintaining electrolytes in the blood in a very narrow range of values and the hyponatremia it would take to cause swelling would not only cause significant additional symptoms like nausea, vomiting, confusion, seizures, death, etc., but it’d also take a significant blow or underlying medical disorder to cause it.

Additionally, if dehydration were the issue, once again the swelling wouldn’t be isolated to the arms, and it’s also very uncommon for water to collect in the extravascular space when there is an overall deficit of water in the body. It can definitely happen but it’s rare and comparable to a dry paper towel sitting in a pool of water. The paper towel is going to soak up the water like our body is going to soak up that swelling.

Also, definitely not gravity as the primary culprit. If that were the case our legs which are much longer and have a much harder battle against gravity back to the heart so if gravity were the culprit our feet would be as thick as elephant stumps. And definitely not altitude: just go for a hike at sea level; it stills happens and there’s no reasonable mechanism. And just for completeness sake, it’s not temperature’s fault either. Once again, if that were the case, there’s no reasonable explanation for why it would be isolated to the hands and arms.

How to keep your hands from swelling

Now that I’ve explained the pathophysiology of hand swelling while hiking, I have a couple solutions. My first recommendation is using trekking poles, for so many reasons in addition to totally preventing the hand swelling. They help prevent injuries, make hiking easier, faster, and enable you to bounce down gnarly trails like a mountain goat. You’ll look dumb to everyone who has never used them but hey you already look dumb to everyone back at home relaxing on their sofas.


I highly recommend the Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles.

If you absolutely refuse to use trekking poles or simply don’t hike often enough to drop the dough, I recommend you do some exercises while hiking. Take your hands and put your thumbs on your backpack straps and lift them off your shoulders. This will contract your muscles as well as relieve the pressure. It’ll also elevate your forearms to help promote some of that return flow. If you want to look extra special you could wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care, maybe show off your guns and flex a little for the single does prancing through the forest. If you want to look sooooper cool you could whip out the compression sleeves but I can’t imagine that helping much.

Or just get trekking poles and accept your fate that it’s impossible to look cool while hiking.

Free will and its impact on our political views

The last few weeks I’ve been trying to pinpoint the difference between liberals and conservatives in the United States and kept coming back to the idea of free will. I want to get at the fundamentals of where we differ, not superficial policy debates, not fiscal arguments, but basic fundamentals of how we see the world. And the first thing that stood out to me is how we see equal opportunity. How do we view our ability to succeed in this world as compared to someone of a different race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc? While conservatives, for the most part, believe that we can ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and believe in equal opportunity to the top, liberals fundamentally disagree. Liberals believe that we are staggered from the gun and some people are given a head start. What we are disagreeing on, fundamentally, is the impact of free will and politics. Continue reading Free will and its impact on our political views

How to prevent another Trump presidency

Trump’s electoral college win this month and the failure of logic and reason to prevent a Trump presidency will probably go down in history as nearly analyzed as much as Hitler’s rise to power. In only two weeks I’ve read proposed hundreds of reasons for his success, from lying news to liberal arrogance. And it’s taken me a while to compose myself enough to analyze it and get past the pure vitriol and disgust I have for anyone who voted for that man. But while we cling to simple answers and quick solutions, and of course if we changed any one element of the campaigns and election, the outcome could have and should have been drastically different. I’m not sure though that my thoughts on the matter constitute a simple answer, because the question I’m asking myself is not how he won, but rather how he got any votes at all. And the answer to that question, the source of Donald Trump’s rise to power stems not from liberal media bias or Hillary’s slip ups, but rather from the ignorance, lack of education, and inability to think critically that plagues humanity. And the only way to prevent another Trump presidency is to combat all those things. Continue reading How to prevent another Trump presidency

Weight loss isn’t simply a math problem

I used to cite the simple math of calories in<calories out=weight loss as an argument for the ease of weight loss. I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve believed and said some extraordinarily stupid stuff. It sometimes takes me a while, and I may never learn, but I have to get over my insecurity of admitting I was wrong and admit that this claim about weight loss was fundamentally naive. Continue reading Weight loss isn’t simply a math problem

The hallmark of a healthy diet

Since I was a kid, my dad would inform me of the recent dietary trend, from entire dietary restrictions to minor single food alterations. He would read about it in Men’s Journal and then tell me, “Oh, avocados are very good for you,” or “bread is very bad for you,” with no explanation further than that. It could have been attributed to the most recent journal article on the subject, some undergraduate run correlation study, or it could have just been the musings of a physician who overstepped their authority. I used to think that the reason these adjectives, good and bad, bugged me so much when applied to nutrition because they oversimplified things, but recently I realized that it’s because it massively overcomplicates nutrition. Continue reading The hallmark of a healthy diet

Science!

There are two types of opinions with respect to science: that it can be used to explain everything and the alternative that its scope is limited. I know a lot of us are tremendously resistant to the belief that science can explain everything. We crave mystery in our world and we often believe science takes that away. But what sometimes we fail to realize about science is that more often than not, it creates mystery where there previously was none, it creates questions more than answers. Scientists themselves are fueled by the mystery surrounding our universe and the entities within it. It is exactly the lack of knowledge that drives them. But they base their search on the premise that knowledge can be obtained, and that is why they keep looking. Continue reading Science!

Swimming with intestinal gas

Just over a year ago I set my personal record for 800 yards. It was nothing to brag about, but having been known as a chaser throughout my triathlon career, it was nice to finally be able to come out of the water with the leaders. At 9:38, a personal record by over twenty-five seconds, I was absolutely ecstatic. I was thrilled that my swimming was finally taking off after years of flopping around in the water. But at the same time I wanted to know how I made such a giant improvement in a matter of a couple months. I looked back at my training and it looked consistent as ever. My form had adapted only slightly, but that day something felt different. I felt like I was on top of the water; I felt absolutely fatigue-free for the first six hundred yards. My flip turns were smooth and my stoke held strong. But what led to all this if my training and stroke improvement very likely didn’t? I was swimming with intestinal gas, loads of it. Seriously, I think it was because I had to fart. Really. Goddamn. Badly. Continue reading Swimming with intestinal gas

Sexism in kids

Nearly every day I hear of some case of sexism in the world, why it should end, and how we are to combat it. The adult world shuns this sexism. But after being surrounded by kids the past few months, I realized that it is no wonder adults are often sexist. We raise our kids that way. We teach them differences between genders that are not innate. We encourage boys to play with construction toys and discourage them from princesses. In this light it seems no wonder that engineering schools are flooded with males. I hear a sexist comment nearly every hour in my life surrounded by children and their parents, and yet no one acknowledges it, or is even aware of it. Prepubescent children are nearly identical biologically and the behaviors that we tie to them and differentiate with them are almost completely trained. I wonder too how much of these ties later in life are due to this sexism ingrained in them from birth. Continue reading Sexism in kids

Cosmological significance

Yesterday I listened to a talk from Sam Harris on the subject of free will. It was a brilliant speech, one that I definitely feel is worth watching and may clarify some elements of my last post. What he is addressing is that not only does free will not exist but that it could not exist, that the concept itself is impossible, that to imagine free will is muddled and intangible. Harris spent a large portion of his speech outlining the benefits to knowing that we do not have free will, how an acknowledgement of this reality could help retain fear but abolish hatred, how it could help inspire a reconstructing of our justice system, and many other reasons for adopting an awareness of our true freedom. I was challenged the other day on my analysis of life and my inspiration in life coming almost purely from a cosmological perspective. While Harris supplied us with an adequate and logical reason for understanding that our thoughts are not our own, I wondered about the benefit of analyzing everything from a cosmological perspective. Continue reading Cosmological significance

Biological immortality

Imagine watching nuclear fusion come to be standard as energy on the earth. You stand by as you witness one of the greatest advancements in humankind-the transition to sustainability. Imagine, with the discovery of better methods of space travel, abandoning our terrestrial life to become space-faring, trans-galactic beings. Imagine interacting with beings from another planet, learning their language, their culture, their technology. Imagine studying their biology, making friends on another planet, learning their planet’s history, and having access to information about the universe that we have not yet acquired. Imagine watching our planet develop, new species forming, continents shifting. What if I were to tell you that all of this could potentially happen within your lifetime? Continue reading Biological immortality