Cold hands: Could it be Raynaud’s?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

I used to enjoy cold weather and cold-weather activities. Not anymore. These days I find it harder and harder to keep my hands warm when I’m outside, even with an excellent pair of gloves. Sometimes my fingers turn white and become numb.

Those are the hallmarks of Raynaud’s syndrome (or disease or phenomenon). Named after the French physician who first described it in 1862, Raynaud’s is a problem in the body’s arteries. In most people with Raynaud’s, small arteries that bring oxygen-rich blood to the fingers spasm and close down in response to cold or stress. This reduces or cuts off blood flow to the fingers. Without a steady supply of warm blood circulating through them, the affected fingers become pale. Raynaud’s can also affect the toes, nose, lips, ears, nipples, and other body parts.

Recognizing Raynaud’s

Everyone’s hands get cold from time to time. Raynaud’s is different than just getting cold. The affected body part

  • feels cold
  • changes from its normal color to a whitish or bluish hue
  • feels numb

When the spasm ends and the arteries reopen, allowing blood to flow again, the finger, toe, or other body part turns pink or red. It may throb or tingle.

Who gets Raynaud’s?

Experts don’t really know why some people have Raynaud’s and others don’t. Clearly these people have unusually strong reactions to cold. Beyond that it’s still a medical mystery.

There are two types of Raynaud’s:

Primary Raynaud’s. This is the most common form. It isn’t caused by some other medical condition that causes arteries to spasm.

Secondary Raynaud’s. Although less common than primary Raynaud’s, this type tends to be more serious. The signs and symptoms are the same, but they are caused by some other health problem. These include

  • a connective tissue disease such as scleroderma
  • lupus
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • cholesterol-clogged arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • carpal tunnel syndrome

Taking certain medications can also trigger Raynaud’s. Culprits include beta blockers, some migraine medications, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder medications, some chemotherapy agents, and over-the-counter cold medications that constrict blood vessels.

Coping with Raynaud’s

Prevention is the best medicine for Raynaud’s. I try to stay out of the cold, and bundle up when I go out. Keeping the whole body warm—and that includes the head—can help prevent blood vessels in your skin from constricting. I wear insulated gloves when I go outside, and use fingerless gloves when I work inside. You can now buy battery-powered gloves for outdoors and gloves powered by USB cables for typing. For some people, reaching into a refrigerator or freezer without gloves is enough to provoke an attack. Air conditioning can do it for others.

It’s possible to cut an attack short by running your hands under warm water or waving your arms in circles to get the blood flowing. Reusable gel warming packets are another option.

Some people get Raynaud’s attacks when they feel stressed. For them, relaxation techniques can help prevent or halt stress-induced episodes.

Another treatment option that works for some people is thermal biofeedback. This technique uses sensors placed on the fingers that feed temperature information to a video screen. While connected, you use relaxation and other techniques to try to warm your fingers, aided by feedback from the sensors. When you are having an attack, you can then “think” your fingers warm.

Some people, usually those with secondary Raynaud’s, may need to take a medication to prevent or control attacks. Drugs that dilate blood vessels such as calcium-channel blockers are often effective. An ongoing clinical trial is exploring whether taking sildenafil (Viagra) can prevent attacks. This makes sense, because sildenafil started out as an artery-opening blood pressure drug; it works to create erections by opening arteries in the penis. Botox injections are another possible option.

 How Raynaud’s progressesRaynauds

In a Raynaud’s attack, fingers turn white (A) as small arteries in the fingers (arterioles) tighten, restricting the flow of blood to the skin. As oxygen in the blood is depleted, the fingers turn blue (B) and become painful. Eventually, the arterioles relax, and blood once again enters the fingers, warming the skin and turning it red (C).

Comments:

  1. Trajce Vasilev

    I dont know but my fingers on the feet are always cold.

  2. Hair Transplantation in Dubai

    I guess not. consult your doctor.

  3. Nancy Tolson

    Hi this is Nancy Tolson, currently i am working as a conveyancer and providing legal conveyancing services but because of some health issue, my professional career go down. Thank your for providing this article about cold hands, this will really helps me to solving my health issue.

    Ragards
    Nancy Tolson

  4. Krishna

    Infracare cold feet socks and gloves can help.

  5. Paul Kim

    Smartphones are a common reason of Raynauds. People who use their phones excessively would rather keep their gloves off, as it’s annoying to keep taking them off.

    • Sarah

      Raynaud’s is a medical disorder that most of us are born with, it is not “caused” by things like smartphones. I am in my mid-20s and I’ve had Raynaud’s my whole life, long before I purchased my first smartphone 6 years ago. Someone who has Raynaud’s would not even think of taking off their gloves or mitts in order to do something like use their phone, the pain they would experience would be unbearable and, as a result, their hands would not even function enough to use a phone. Also, a touchscreen phone would not work for someone with Raynaud’s if they were using it outside in the cold without gloves on; they would have so little circulation in their hands that the screen would not even recognize that it was being touched since most phones use heat as a sensor (this actually happens to me while indoors quite often). I know all of this may seem extreme to some people, but Raynaud’s is much more than being “cold” and it can be difficult for people who do not have it to understand what it is like.

  6. Allen

    Thnks