Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition where blood flow to your fingers, toes, ears, or nose is restricted or interrupted. This occurs when the blood vessels in your hands or feet constrict. Episodes of constriction are called vasospasms.
Raynaud’s phenomenon can accompany underlying medical conditions. Vasospasms that are provoked by other conditions, such as arthritis, frostbite, or autoimmune disease, are called secondary Raynaud’s.
Raynaud’s phenomenon can also occur on its own. People who experience Raynaud’s but are otherwise healthy are said to have primary Raynaud’s.
Cold temperatures and emotional stress can trigger episodes of Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Symptoms of Raynaud’s Phenomenon
The most common symptom of Raynaud’s phenomenon is discoloration of your fingers, toes, ears, or nose. When the blood vessels carrying blood to your extremities become blocked, the affected areas turn pure white and feel ice cold. You will lose sensation in the affected areas. Your skin may also take on a blue tinge.
People with primary Raynaud’s usually feel a drop in body temperature in the affected region, but little pain. Those who have the secondary form of the condition often experience severe pain, numbness, and tingling in the fingers or toes. Episodes may last a few minutes or up to several hours.
When the vasospasm is over and you enter a warm environment, your fingers and toes may throb and appear bright red. The rewarming process begins after your circulation improves. Your fingers and toes may not feel warm for 15 minutes or more after circulated is restored.
If you have primary Raynaud’s, you may find that the same fingers or toes on each side of your body are affected at the same time. If you have the secondary form of the condition, you may have symptoms on one or both sides of your body. No two vasospasm episodes are exactly alike, even in the same person.
Causes of Raynaud’s Phenomenon
Doctors don’t fully understand the cause of Raynaud’s. Secondary Raynaud’s is usually related to medical conditions or lifestyle habits that affect your blood vessels or connective tissue, such as:
- use of medications and drugs that narrow your arteries, such as beta-blockers and amphetamines
- atherosclerosis, which is hardening of your arteries
- autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, or Sjogren’s disease
Common triggers of Raynaud’s symptoms include:
- cold temperatures
- emotional stress
- working with hand tools that emit vibrations
Construction workers who use jackhammers, for example, may have an increased risk of vasospasm. However, not everyone with the condition will have the same triggers. It’s important to pay attention to your body and learn what your triggers are.
Who Gets Raynaud’s Phenomenon?
According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, women are more likely than men to develop Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Young adults under the age of 30 have an increased risk of developing the primary form of the condition. The onset of secondary Raynaud’s is more common in adults in their 30s and 40s.
Those who live in colder geographic regions are more likely to be affected by Raynaud’s phenomenon than inhabitants of warmer climates.
Diagnosing Raynaud’s Phenomenon
Your doctor will perform a physical exam, take your medical history, and perform blood work to diagnose Raynaud’s phenomenon. They will ask you about your symptoms and may request a microscopic examination of the nail folds near your fingernails to determine if you have primary or secondary Raynaud’s. This procedure is called capillaroscopy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with secondary Raynaud’s often have enlarged or deformed blood vessels near their nail folds. This is in contrast to primary Reynaud’s, where your capillaries often appear normal when vasospasm is not occurring.
Blood tests can reveal whether or not you test positive for antinuclear antibodies (ANA). The presence of ANAs can mean you are more likely to experience autoimmune or connective tissue disorders. Such conditions put you at risk for secondary Raynaud’s.
Treating Raynaud’s Phenomenon
Lifestyle changes are a large part of the treatment process for Raynaud’s phenomenon. Avoiding substances that cause your blood vessels to constrict is the first line of treatment. This includes avoiding caffeine and nicotine products.
Staying warm and exercising can also prevent or reduce the intensity of some attacks. Exercise is particularly good for promoting circulation and managing stress.
Your doctor may prescribe medication if you have frequent, long-lasting, or intense vasospasm episodes. Drugs that cause vasodilation help your blood vessels relax. These include:
- antihypertension medications
- erectile dysfunction drugs
Some medications can also make your condition worse because they constrict blood vessels. Examples include:
- estrogen-based drugs
- migraine medicines
- birth control pills
- pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines
Outlook for People with Raynaud’s
If you have Raynaud’s phenomenon, your outlook depends on your overall health. Over the long term, secondary Raynaud’s poses larger concerns than the primary form. People who have secondary Raynaud’s are more likely to suffer from infection, skin ulcers, and gangrene.
Coping with a Raynaud’s Phenomenon Attack
If you have an attack of vasospasms, it’s important to keep yourself warm. To help cope with an attack, you can:
- Cover your hands or feet with socks or gloves.
- Get out of the cold and wind and rewarm your entire body.
- Run your hands or feet under lukewarm (not hot) water.
- Massage your extremities.
Staying calm can help reduce the severity of your attack. Try to remain as relaxed and stress-free as possible. It may help to physically remove yourself from stressful situations. Concentrating on your breathing can also help you calm down.