The mechanism behind digital clubbing has yet to be fully elucidated, with hypotheses ranging from a circulating vasodilator, tissue hypoxia, a neurocirculatory reflex, and genetic factors. 1 Although hypoxemia is often cited as a cause of clubbing, it is often absent in the presence of clubbing and many patients with hypoxemia do not have clubbing.
A potentially unifying pathophysiologic mechanism of clubbing revolves around platelet clustering and associated growth factor release. 2.3 Platelet clumps/megakaryocytes—either because of circumvention of the lung capillary network (eg, in intracardiac shunts or lung cancer) or increased production (eg, in left-sided endocarditis or chronic inflammatory conditions)—may wedge in the fine vasculature of distal fingertips or toes and cause release of platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).
Together, PDGF and VEGF promote neovascularization, increase vessel dilation and permeability, and modify connective tissue to create the distinct club-like appearance. Local hypoxic condition from reduced capillary perfusion is thought to further stimulate the release of these growth factors.
Potential causes of clubbing in our patient include lung cancer, interstitial lung disease, bronchiectasis, core pulmonale and secondary polycythemia, among many others. 1
Fun Fact: Did you know that clubbing, also known as “Hippocratic finger”, was first described by Hippocrates in a patient with chronic empyema (don’t ask how chronic empyema was diagnosed in 400 BC!)?1
- McPhee SJ. Clubbing. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, editors. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths;1990. Chapter 44. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK366/
- Dickinson CJ, Martin JF. Megakaryocytes and platelet clumps as the cause of finger clubbing. Lancet 1987;2:1434-4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2891996/
- Atkinson S, Fox SB. Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-A and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) play a central role in the pathogenesis of digital clubbing. J Pathol 2004;203:721-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15141388
Contributed by George Bugarinovic, Medical Student, Harvard Medical School