Sweaty palms, more properly known as palmar hyperhidrosis, is a condition that affects about 1% of the US population. Although the exact cause of sweaty palms is still debated, many experts believe it is caused by a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system, causing the sweat glands in the hands to produce sweat unnecessarily.
Sweating is a device the body uses to help regulate its temperature to keep everything running smoothly. The human body has millions of sweat glands, and more than half of them are found in the hands. When the body becomes agitated – through physical exertion, extreme temperatures, or stress – the sweat glands release sweat to help cool the body back down to its optimal temperature range.
People who have severe palmar hyperhidrosis experience sweaty palms even when the body should not, for any physiological reason, be trying to cool down. This can cause severe discomfort and embarrassment and can get in the way of performing certain everyday tasks. Though sweaty palms are treatable through a number of different procedures, there is no complete cure, and most people continue to live with the condition throughout their lives.
In the past, the medical establishment tended to diagnose sweaty palms as a purely psychosomatic illness, but this view is gradually fading. While psychological factors can certainly exacerbate the condition – when one begins experiencing sweaty palms in a social situation, for example, the stress induced by inappropriate sweating can cause even more sweating to occur – it is generally accepted now that the underlying cause is physiological. The most likely cause of sweaty palms, as well as other types of hyperhidrosis, is an overactive sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system manages all sorts of functions in the body that make up what is commonly termed the fight-or-flight response; this includes the release of a number of chemicals such as adrenaline, increasing heart rate, constricting blood vessels, and of course, sweating. When the sympathetic nervous system malfunctions, certain fight-or-flight responses may be triggered at inappropriate times, as in the case of sweaty palms.
Whether the malfunction of the sympathetic nervous system has, in turn, a deeper cause is a matter of some study and discussion. It may be that the malfunction occurs on the level of the ganglia themselves, or it may be that a neurological malfunction triggers the sweat glands in the palms to act inappropriately. Whatever the root cause, sweaty palms is at last sufficiently understood to offer a number of chemical treatments to help those suffering from this affliction to realize a level of normalcy in their lives that only a few decades ago would have been nearly impossible.