Sometimes, when you give something a name, it makes it seem more scary. Case in point: after running in cold weather or skiing, even when wearing gloves, my middle finger on both hands turns white at the top. (While it makes it more fun to give someone the finger…it hurts!) Once I warm up, usually by taking a shower or warming my hands, it tingles painfully as the blood returns. Lately, my fingers have been staying white for longer. On Thursday, after a 6 mile run in 40 degree temps (i.e., not that cold!) I changed out of my sweaty clothes and went straight to a strength class. It wasn’t until I arrived at the class that I noticed my fingers were whiter than ever. One of my training partners, who happens to be a nurse, said, “Oh, you have Raynaud’s Syndrome.”
Yikes. There’s something wrong with me! That was my first reaction. But my friend said that it’s not a big deal; she has it too, as does about 5% of the U.S. population, according to an NIH fact sheet. Basically, Raynaud’s is a narrowing of the blood vessels that reduces blood flow to the fingers and toes. The fingers are most commonly affected, although in about 40 percent of people with Raynaud’s, the toes are affected.
How do you “get” Raynaud’s?
According to the NIH web site, there are two types of Raynaud’s: primary and secondary. The cause of primary Raynaud’s is unknown, whereas secondary Raynaud’s is caused by a disease, condition, or other factor, and is more severe than primary Raynaud’s. In both types, Raynaud’s “attacks” are triggered by cold temperatures (even mild or brief temperature changes) or stress. Most people find that they can manage the condition with minor lifestyle changes; in some cases, people with secondary Raynaud’s require medication or even surgery to treat the disease. It’s important that you see your doctor immediately if you develop sores on your fingers or toes as these can lead to tissue decay or death, commonly known as gangrene.
Risk factors for primary Raynaud’s:
- Gender. Women are more likely to be affected than men.
- Age. Primary Raynaud’s usually develops before age 30.
- Family history of the disease.
- Living in a cold climate.
Risk factors for secondary Raynaud’s:
- Age. Secondary Raynaud’s usually develops after age 30.
- Diseases that directly damage the arteries or damage the nerves that control the arteries in the hands and feet.
- Injuries to hands/feet.
- Exposure to certain workplace chemicals, such as vinyl chloride (used in the plastics industry).
- Repetitive actions with the hands, such as typing or using vibrating tools.
- Certain medicines, such as migraine, cancer, cold/allergy, birth control pills, or blood pressure medicines.
- Living in a cold climate.
What can you do about Raynaud’s?
While there’s no cure for Raynaud’s, lifestyle changes can prevent attacks. The primary change is to protect yourself from cold temperatures. You can do this by:
- Wearing a hat, mittens (rather than gloves, as keeping your fingers in contact with each other keeps them warmer and aids in blood flow), warm socks, and layering your clothing.
- Using hand and foot warmers.
- Wearing gloves or mittens before taking food out of the freezer (if cold temperatures severely affect you.)
You can further prevent attacks by:
- Learning ways to handle stress.
- Avoiding medications (listed above) that can trigger attacks.
- Limiting your use of caffeine and alcohol.
- Quitting smoking.
And finally, great news! Include physical activity as part of your healthy lifestyle. Physical activity can increase your blood flow and help keep you warm.
Next time I run in the cold, I’ll be wearing my mittens!
Do you have Raynaud’s?