Raynaud’s phenomenon is when blood vessels in your fingers and toes temporarily overreact to cold temperatures or stress. For most people, it’s not a serious health problem — but in others, the reduced blood flow can cause damage.
How It Happens
When it’s cold, your body tries to conserve heat. One way it does that is by slowing down the flow of blood to the farthest points — your hands and feet. To do that, the network of small arteries that carry blood to those points gets narrower, moving them away from your skin.
If you have Raynaud’s phenomenon, those arteries shrink down more than normal, and faster than normal. That can make your fingers and toes feel numb and change color to white or blue. This usually lasts about 15 minutes. When the arteries relax and your body warms back up, your fingers feel tingly and turn red before returning to normal.
This condition is named for the French doctor who first identified it in 1862. You might also hear it called Raynaud’s disease or Raynaud’s syndrome.
Types of Raynaud’s Phenomenon
There are two types, called primary and secondary Raynaud’s.
Primary Raynaud’s occurs without any underlying illness. The symptoms are often very mild..
Secondary Raynaud’s happens as a result of another illness. It’s often a condition that attacks your body’s connective tissues, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. It’s less common, but more likely to cause serious health problems. This can include things like skin sores and gangrene. These happen when cells and tissue in your extremities die from lack of blood.
Who Gets It?
As many as 1 in 10 people may have some form of Raynaud’s, with most of those having the primary form. About 1 person in 100, or fewer, will have secondary Raynaud’s.
- Women are up to nine times more likely to get it than men are.
- People of all ages can get Raynaud’s — but it usually starts showing up between 15 and 25.
- People with secondary Raynaud’s tend to get it after 35.
- People with illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma and lupus are more likely to get secondary Reynaud’s.
- People who use some medicines to treat cancer, migraines or high blood pressure may be more likely to get Raynaud’s.
- Also, people who have carpal tunnel syndrome or use vibrating tools like jackhammers may be more likely to get Raynaud’s.
How Is It Diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects you have Raynaud’s phenomenon, she will ask you some questions about your symptoms and examine your fingers and toes. Your doctor might also use a special magnifying glass called a dermoscope to look at the blood vessels around your fingernails to see if they’re enlarged or misshapen.
If your doctor suspects your condition is caused by another health problem, you might be asked to give a blood sample. This is usually to check for signs of an autoimmune disorder such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
How Is It Treated?
If you have Raynaud’s phenomenon, your treatment will be aimed at keeping attacks from happening or limiting the ones that do occur. That usually means keeping your hands and feet warm and dry, controlling stress and getting regular exercise.
Your doctor might ask you to avoid some drugs, including over-the-counter cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine. They can make your symptoms worse by causing your blood vessels to squeeze down.
If you have secondary Raynaud’s, you might be given medicines to control your blood pressure and relax your blood vessels. If you develop sores on your skin as a result, you might be told to apply a cream that contains one of these drugs.
If your condition doesn’t improve after these steps and you’re at risk of severe problems, like losing parts of your fingers or toes, your doctor might consider surgery. These procedures involve cutting the nerves to the blood vessels in your skin to limit how much they open and close. Your doctors might also inject drugs into your hands or feet to block those nerves.