Raynaud’s: An Unwelcome Winter Guest

Hello Kelley, It’s Me Raynaud’s….

I will never forget the day my fingers went numb and turned white, just like you see in the picture. It was in the middle of winter, my husband and I were teaching a Sunday school class to a group of 3-year old kids. I did not get a chance to have breakfast that morning so I just grabbed a caramel light Frappuccino. After I drank the ice cold drink I remember my fingers began to tingle. All my life I had cold hands and feet but this time felt different. The tingling was immediately followed with numbness. I put my gloves on and tried to warm my hands. After 10 minutes of rubbing my gloved hands together and blowing hot air over my gloves, my fingers were still ice cold. Out of concern, I took my gloves off and was shocked at what I saw. I noticed that the the last inch of my middle, ring, and index fingers were pure white. I remember thinking to myself, “My fingers are dead!” I started to panic.

I showed my hands to my husband and ran to the bathroom. In the bathroom I turned on the hot water and ran it over my fingers. I remember it seemed like hours before my fingers returned to their “normal” color and sensation. The tips of my fingers first turned bright red and then after 20 minutes of running hot water over my hands my fingers were pink. My heart was racing so fast, from the horror of what had happened. The loss of control in being able to warm up my hands left me feeling extremely fearful that something was medically wrong. I remember hearing a little about Raynaud’s in nursing school so as soon as we got home from church I turned to the internet to find out more about the condition.

Winter’s Guest

Every winter Raynaud’s moves into my life. I refer to Raynaud’s as an unwelcomed guest. Raynaud’s shows up unexpectedly. Sometimes when I’m all bundled up, gloved up, and warm but have had an extra cup of coffee earlier that morning, Raynaud’s appears. Raynaud’s can show up when I’m warm but stressed from a lack of sleep. Even after I take an extremely hot shower and step out of the shower still warm, Raynaud’s reminds me I’m not alone.

Since Raynaud’s is basically unknown to the general public, I wanted to look into the current information available on this peculiar phenomenon. Here is what I found.

Raynaud’s Phenomenon

Raynaud’s phenomenon was named after Maurice Raynaud who discovered the condition in 1862. Although Raynaud’s phenomenon has been identified for 150 years the causes and treatment of the disorder are still somewhat of a mystery.

For those of us who experience Raynaud’s, wintertime is often met with trepidation of when Raynaud’s will strike. If you have had a long history of extremely cold hands and feet, taking piping hot baths or showers, chilling easily, needing to wear gloves when the temperature is just slightly cool, owning several pairs of thick wooly socks because the tips of your toes can feel numb when exposed to cold air, or wearing hand warmers, you might be a risk for developing Raynaud’s phenomenon.

What is Raynaud’s?

Raynaud’s is referred to as Raynaud’s disease, Raynaud’s phenomenon or Raynaud’s disease throughout the medical literature. The discoloration of fingers or toes, in Raynaud’s results after being are exposed to cold conditions, an emotional event, or excessive intake of caffeine. An abnormal spasm in the vessels of the digits diminishes the blood supply to the affected areas. The fingers and toes typically turn white and then blue, from a lack of oxygenation. When the vessels open back up, the fingers turn red, revealing a return of blood flow. When the color changes occur the individual often feels a tingling sensation in the fingers and toes. This tingling sensation can at times be slightly painful as blood rushes back into the vessels.

Who is Affected by Raynaud’s?

Research suggests that 5% of the American population has Raynaud’s, although it is purported to be larger due to lack of reporting. It affects women in their 20’s, 30’s, or 40’s, more than men.There are two categories of Raynaud’s.

  1. Primary Raynaud’s. This is the most common form of Raynaud’s. Primary Raynaud’s is when the symptoms of the disease occur alone without any underlying medical disease. Other terms for this category of Raynaud’s include: Raynaud’s disease or Raynaud’s phenomenon.
  2. Secondary Raynaud’s . This is what is known as Raynaud’s phenomenon and typically occurs around or after age 40, as a result of an underlying medical condition. This category of Raynaud’s is less common but potentially more dangerous than primary Raynaud’s.

Secondary Raynaud’s is found in individuals who often have a history of one of the following disorders: Scleroderma, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Sjogren’s Disease, Atherosclerosis, thyroid gland diseases, certain medications, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, overuse injuries, and history of frostbite.

Long-Term Consequences of Raynaud’s

Most cases of Raynaud’s do not cause severe problems. Typically Raynaud’s is simply a sporadic event that can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. In individuals with a weak immune system or serious untreated infection, skin ulcers can appear which if left untreated could potentially lead to gangrene (tissue death). In cases of gangrene, amputation is performed to prevent further complications.

Preventing Raynaud’s Attacks

Sometimes Raynaud’s attacks cannot be prevented. They sneak up on me like an unwelcomed winter guest. However, there are certain things you can do to decrease the chances of experiencing Raynaud’s phenomenon.

  • Wear thick warm gloves in cool temperatures with a finger heated glove liner.
  • Dress in layers. Always prepare to be overly dressed. You can always remove the extra layers if needed.
  • Avoid standing out in the wind. Wind is often a greater factor in the development of Raynaud’s than being in a cold environment.
  • Do not drink cold drinks if you are cold already, if you have had more caffeine than normal, or if you have been fighting an infection or are sleep deprived. Any extra stress on your body from being cold, fighting an infection, or overcoming sleep deprivation is an invitation to Raynaud’s phenomenon.
  • Change clothes as soon as possible after working out or sweating. A cold sweat, even in warm temperatures can lead to Raynaud’s.
  • Use gloves when removing frozen food from the freezer. Just a brief encounter with ice or frozen food can trigger Raynaud’s.

When Other People Stare

When you see someone experiencing Raynaud’s in public keep in mind the embarrassment that individual feels. Also if you are the one experiencing an attack in public remind yourself of the shock you experienced when you first observed your own white lifeless looking fingers.  I try to have a pair of gloves with me at all times so I can just cover up my hands in public.

Hopefully you will never have to welcome the uninvited winter guest of Raynaud’s phenomenon. However if Raynaud’s decides to knock on your door this winter you can experience less fear knowing Raynaud’s is typically harmless.

Kelley Ward, PhD, RN, C
Freelance author