Every family has their medical downsides, and as much as I am a proponent and believer in creating our own destiny, there are just some things we inherit regardless of what we do.  I am writing this one for my family, as this is something a few of us seem to have inherited.

Do your fingers or toes go icy and drain of color and feeling when you are exposed to cold or feel stress?  Does it happen in just moderately cold conditions and then return to normal shortly after your extremities warm-up?  As the sensation returns, do you experience numbness giving way to pins and needles, then tingling and sometimes throbbing?  Color slowly returns to the digits that went blue or white just moments before.  Once you get out of the cold or stressful environment, all is usually well again in about 15 or 20 minutes.

If you find yourself nodding your head ‘yes this is me’, then you likely have Raynaud’s.  This is a circulatory condition in which the body responds in an exaggerated way to cold temperature or stress.  Normally, the body responds to cold by constricting blood vessels to retain heat.  With Raynaud’s however, the reaction results in excessive vasospasms, or abnormal constrictions that cause the blood vessels to narrow too much and too quickly, in turn leading to little or no blood flow to the extremities.

This condition comes in two forms: primary and secondary.  Primary Raynaud’s is often bothersome and uncomfortable.  More of a nuisance if I do say so myself, but it does not result in permanent damage.  Its cause remains unknown, as its been deemed ‘Raynaud’s Phenomenon,’ but Raynaud’s tends to run in families.  A study completed in 2012 in the American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology points to specific receptor proteins in the skin’s blood vessels involved in reacting to cold stimuli.  These players may be overreactive or simply dysfunctional, a finding experts hope will lead to improved treatment for conditions like Raynaud’s.  Luckily, primary Raynaud’s is more of a nuisance than anything else!

Secondary Raynaud’s tends to make it’s appearance later in life.  It’s associated with connective tissue diseases such as scleroderma, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.  However, there are other possible causes, such as a hand or foot injury; blood vessel disease, repetitive movements (typing), working with tools that vibrate (jackhammer) and drugs for colds, migraines, blood pressure or cancer.  In this case, pain from attacks can last for hours.  Severe cases can cause damage to skin tissue, leading to sores and possibly gangrene.

Regardless of your trigger – cold temperature, stress, or unknown – treatment for both forms can include self-management strategies:

  • Keep hands and feet warm and dry
  • Avoid sudden exposure to cold air (even air conditioning)
  • Learn ways to reduce stress
  • Quit smoking
  • Terminate an attack by placing hands and/or feet in warm water or in a warm place, rubbing hands together, or rotating your arms in a windmill pattern.
  • In worse case scenario, people with secondary Raynaud’s may need medication to relax blood vessels.  Rarely, surgery is advised to remove damaged tissue.

Raynaud’s has no cure, so ongoing care is essential to prevent tissue injury.  For those of us with this condition that enjoy ‘cold’ sports, such as skiing, snowboarding, sailing, surfing, or just being outdoors, you simply need to prepare.  Up until a couple years ago, I had no idea my ‘condition’ even had a name.  My sister wonders why I don’t spend more time in the ocean — and plain and simple — it sucks when you are paddling around and your fingers keep going numb!