What is Raynaud's phenomenon?
Raynaud's (say "ray-NOHZ") phenomenon is a problem when the blood vessels in the hands and feet are extra sensitive and become more narrow than normal. The hands and feet feel very cold and numb for a short time.
You may also hear this condition called Raynaud's syndrome or Raynaud's disease.
For most people, Raynaud's is more of a nuisance than a disability.
What causes it?
Often Raynaud's has no known cause. (This is sometimes called primary Raynaud's.)
Raynaud's may be a symptom of another disease, such as lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, or atherosclerosis. It may also be caused by taking certain medicines, using vibrating power tools for several years, smoking, or having frostbite. (This is sometimes called secondary Raynaud's.)
Certain things can trigger an attack of symptoms. The most common trigger is exposure to cold. In the cold, it's normal for the body to narrow the small blood vessels to the skin and to open the blood vessels to the inside parts of the body to keep the body warm. But with Raynaud's, the body restricts blood flow to the skin more than it needs to. Other triggers can include emotional stress and things that affect the flow of blood, such as smoking, caffeine, and some medicines.
What are the symptoms?
During an attack of Raynaud's, the body limits blood flow to the hands and feet. This makes them feel cold and numb and then turn white or blue. As blood flow returns and the fingers or toes warm up, they may turn red and begin to throb and hurt. In rare cases, Raynaud's affects the nose or ears.
An attack most often lasts only a few minutes. But in some cases it may last more than an hour.
How is it diagnosed?
To diagnose Raynaud's, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and do a physical examination. You'll need to describe what happens during an attack. If you can take a photo of the affected area during an attack, the photo may also be helpful to your doctor.
There are no tests that can show that you have Raynaud's. But your doctor may do a blood test or other tests to rule out diseases that may be causing your symptoms.
How is Raynaud's phenomenon treated?
If you have Raynaud's that is caused by another disease, your doctor can treat that disease. This may relieve your symptoms.
There is no cure for Raynaud's that occurs on its own (primary Raynaud's). But you may be able to control it by avoiding the things that trigger it.
- Keep your body warm.
- Don't smoke.
- Avoid caffeine and certain medicines, including cold medicines with pseudoephedrine and beta-blockers. (Don't stop taking prescribed medicines unless you talk to your doctor first.)
- Reduce stress.
If you can't control your symptoms with these steps, your doctor may give you medicine such as calcium channel blockers. This may increase blood flow to your hands and feet and relieve symptoms.
Some alternative treatments, such as natural health products and biofeedback training, have shown promise in treating Raynaud's. But they haven't been shown to work for everyone. Talk with your doctor if you're interested in trying any of these.
How can you care for yourself?
To prevent Raynaud's episodes or ease symptoms
- Run warm water over your hands or feet to increase blood flow. Use another part of your body, such as your forearm, to make sure the water is not too hot; you could burn your hands or feet and not feel it because they are numb.
- Swing your arms in a circle at the sides of your body ("windmilling") to increase blood flow.
- If your doctor prescribes medicine to help Raynaud's, take it exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse advice line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
- If another condition causes your Raynaud's, make sure to follow your treatment for that condition.
- Wear mittens or gloves when it is cold outside. Mittens are warmer than gloves because they keep your fingers together. Gloves underneath mittens will keep your hands warmer than gloves alone. You also can use pot holders or oven mitts when getting something from the freezer or refrigerator.
- You can slip chemical hand warmers into your mittens or gloves when you do outside activities.
- Do not smoke. Nicotine makes blood vessels constrict, which can bring on an attack. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
- Avoid caffeine and cold medicines that have pseudoephedrine. They make blood vessels constrict. Beta-blocker medicines, often used to treat high blood pressure, also can make Raynaud's worse.
- Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, which can lower the amount of blood moving through the blood vessels. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
- Try to stay calm when you are under stress. Anxiety can make your blood vessels constrict and lead to a Raynaud's attack.
To keep your whole body warm
- Eat a hot meal and drink a warm liquid before going outside. They may help raise your body temperature.
- Wear layers of warm clothing. The inner layer should be made of a material such as polypropylene that pulls moisture away from your body.
- Wear a hat.
- Do not wear clothing that is too tight. It can decrease or cut off blood flow.
- Try to stay dry. Choose waterproof, breathable jackets and boots. Being wet makes you more likely to become chilled.