Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition in which there is an exaggerated blood vessel tightening in response to cold or emotional stress, restricting blood flow to certain areas of the body – most often the fingers, but sometimes the toes, ears, or the end of the nose.
The exaggerated vascular response (tightening) in Raynaud’s phenomenon is called vasospasm, which often occur in response to cold or emotional stress. With vasospasm, the fingers turn white and cold then blue with dilated veins followed by relaxation of the vessel and normal blood flow causing a red ‘flushing’
According to a recent article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, Raynaud’s affects approximately 3 to 5 percent of the population – women are more often affected than men. Raynaud’s phenomenon occurs in two forms – primary and secondary. Primary is the most common and has no underlying cause. Secondary is when Raynaud’s phenomenon occurs in combination with another autoimmune disease like scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome or systemic lupus erythematous. The article also states that people who work with certain chemicals, like vinyl chloride, or vibrating tools like a jackhammer are also susceptible to secondary Raynaud’s.
Secondary Raynaud has a later onset, starting after age 35 or 40, and is more dangerous than primary Raynaud’s. In some cases, blood flow is so restricted that it can result in skin ulcers and gangrene that require surgery.
Raynaud’s phenomenon has several warning signs, which may be present at the onset of disease. These include:
- Fingers, toes, ears, and/or nose turning white or blue when they are exposed to cold, or at times of emotional distress
- Pain in the fingers or toes when they are exposed to changes in temperature
- Tingling in extremities when they have been exposed to cold and are warming up
To confirm a diagnosis, doctors may order tests to determine the rate of blood flow within vessels. Blood tests – the antinuclear antibody test and the erythrocyte sedimentation rate – can help determine the underlying cause of Raynaud’s.
Once a doctor has diagnosed Raynaud’s phenomenon, there are several simple, effective methods to help manage the symptoms. While there is no known cure for Raynaud’s phenomenon, people with the disease are usually able to manage their symptoms with medications and behavior modification.
In many cases, medications are not necessary to treat Raynaud’s phenomenon. Non-medicinal strategies can often be very effective.
There are a number of strategies to treat the symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon. Most importantly, protecting the core body (hat, scarf, layered clothes) as well as the hands and feet from cold temperatures will help prevent discomfort. Wear multiple insulating layers and a wind and water resistant outer garment. Wearing gloves and heavy socks in winter is a simple protection strategy. Some people with Raynaud’s phenomenon even find it helpful to wear cotton gloves or oven mitts to reach into freezers, to protect sensitive hands and reduce the risk of vasospasms.
People with Raynaud’s phenomenon should not smoke or be exposed to second-hand smoke, as smoking restricts blood vessels and can exacerbate the condition. According to the New York Time‘s article on Raynaud’s, certain medications that constrict blood vessels can also make matters worse. Examples of these include beta-blockers, cold remedies, some migraine remedies and some blood pressure medications.
It is also important to reduce stress that can trigger a Raynaud’s attack. Stress-reducing techniques include meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. Regular physical exercise will also help to reduce stress and promote the circulation of warm blood to the extremities.
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