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The Icy Touch of Raynaud's

Most people don't think too much about keeping their hands warm, particularly not in the heat of the summer. But folks like me who have Raynaud's Syndrome learn to avoid frigid digits whenever they can. Because what happens when my hands get cold, as my grossed-out kids can attest, isn't pretty. And it can happen getting in the pool or the ocean if the water is chilly, holding an ice-cold martini, or retrieving frozen food from the freezer.

In Raynaud's (sometimes spelled Reynaud's, though the condition is named for the French physician Maurice Raynaud, who identified it in 1862) Syndrome (sometimes called Disease or Phenomenon), capillaries in the hands (and sometimes the feet) constrict dramatically in response to cold temperature. The resulting withdrawal of blood from the skin's surface turns the fingers a waxy yellow; my fingers also grow numb. (Some people's skin turns blue.)

The only way I know to get my hands back to normal is to run them under warm water for a few minutes. The color gradually comes back, in splotchy red patches.

As chronic conditions go, Raynaud's isn't the worst in the world. But I really can't use my fingers for anything at all when they're in that pallid state. And I find myself avoiding situations that might make them cold.

Luckily, most cases of Raynaud's aren't related to any underlying disease, and, apart from the inconvenience, the condition is generally harmless. In some cases, though, the syndrome is associated with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, says cigarette smoking, using vibrating heavy equipment, and even stress can trigger episodes of Raynaud's. The condition affects far more women than men, though nobody quite knows how many people have it because lots of cases likely go unreported. The Raynaud's Association -- whose tagline reads "Some people are too cool for their own good" -- is trying to raise awareness of the disorder and provide support for the afflicted.

Goldberg recommends that people experiencing Raynaud's for the first time see a physician to rule out underlying disease. Those with more persistent cases may be prescribed medications such as betablockers that dilate small blood vessels.

As you might expect, products are available to help ward off Raynaud's. But I can't imagine going around with gloves or wristbands on all the time. Plus, in its own creepy way, Raynaud's is a bit of a conversation starter; I always feel an immediate kinship when I meet a fellow coldfinger.

Anyone else out there have Raynaud's? How does it affect your life?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 8, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chronic Conditions  
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I have/had Raynaud's. In terms of Raynaud's, I am lucky in that it really only lasted a couple of years, but December-March of those years (2004-2006) was bad. In 2007, I didn't have many fareups, and I only recall one this past winter. So overall, not the bad. I can also point to the exact cause of mine, chemotherephy. Mostly likely the bleomycin. So, given the cause, I didn't mind the Raynaud's so much. But I am happy its gone.

Posted by: RT | July 8, 2008 8:21 AM | Report abuse

I have self-diagnosed myself with this condition, which has been present for as long as I can remember (30+ years). I agree with your sentiment that as conditions go, its not bad. The only way it affects me is having to wear extra socks in the winter and having difficulty with some outdoor winter-time tasks that involve dexterity, but until I learned of the disorder I figured this was normal!

Posted by: ASC | July 8, 2008 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I was diagnosed with Raynaud's about 15 years ago. This can be a serious condition and shouldn't be managed through self diagnosis.

For the extremities (hands, feets), I find that a nitroglycerin cream is helpful to relieve a Raynaud's attack. This is prescribed by a doctor.

Interesting to hear about the extremities turning yellow - I had never heard that. For me, mine are a constant hue of purple/blue.

Posted by: Washington | July 8, 2008 10:00 AM | Report abuse

My Mother in Law had Raynaud's for over a decade. Just last year she had fluid build up in the plural space of her lungs and her doctors thought she had a form of rheumatoid arthritis of the plural space of the lung. Well, she went in for heart surgery and the fluid kept building up and they couldn't get the build up out, at one point she had 30 extra pounds of fluid on her body. They diagnosied her with scleroderma. And Raynauds is a symptom of scleroderma. No doctor put the two together until it was too late. She passed away from the scleroderma last month.

Posted by: LucindaLC | July 8, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I have severe Raynaud's as part of my lupus/scleroderma. If your Raynaud's gets bad enough -- as mine did in 2006 -- you can get gangrene from it. I had it on the tips of my fingers. They turned black and I lost 2 of my finger tips. And, it was insanely painful -- as tissue death usually is. I was on narcotic pain meds for 6 months. Not fun. And I still have nerve pain in the fingertip. So, Raynaud's can lead to more than a mere annoyance. By the way, in addition to avoiding smoking and caffeine, if you have Raynaud's you should not take any of the triptan anti-migraine medications -- Relpax, Imitrex, etc. They work to cure the migraine by stopping the spasming in the blood vessels but they can trigger a severe Raynaud's attack.

Posted by: Jessica | July 8, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure I have Raynaud's though my doc told me it can't really be diagnosed. My mother has it, too. My feet get much worse than my hands- they'll turn purple without apparent cause. For my job, a friend bought me fingerless gloves so I can still type and stay warm. It's a running office joke that I wear gloves in the middle of summer, but even A/C will trigger it. I've also found that gripping the steering wheel too tightly cuts off the circulation to my fingertips! It's definitely annoying, but so far, nothing more than that.

Posted by: Tracy | July 8, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

My mother has Reynauds, which has been passed down to myself and my sister and brother. I seem to have it the worst, but it seems to go up and down. The trick I have is in the winter to wear the warmest mittens I can, and I have a fleecy steering wheel cover. This seems to help, but it can be frustrating to have my fingertips turn white and go numb and then just have to wait for the blood to get going again. The newest development in the whole thing with the circulation is that if I have a beer, my feet turn red and get hot. My husband and I both think it funny, but secretly, it kind of bothers me. If I could find some way to transfer the heat from my feet to my hands when they get really cold, I'd have it made!

Posted by: Jo | July 8, 2008 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I have Raynaud's, as does my daughter. I can get it in my fingers or my feet, although usually it is my fingers. I find it annoying and kind of interesting, not much of a problem really. Like - I go jogging all year round, and I have found that sometimes my fingers will turn waxy after I get back and into the house, not while I am running; like it is a reaction that has not kept up with my current state. One time I ran at work in winter and unfortunately the shower there had no hot water, after taking a really quick shower I watched my fingers go white, then blue, then red while I was sitting in the warm cafeteria afterward. The only time it was annoying was in winter sometimes when I was driving home from work it would start to come on, and if I stopped in the grocery - those stores are always cold! - my fingers would get more and more numb until I could hardly handle money to pay for my purchases. But I can always get it to go away by running warm water over my hands. Also I try to carry a hot cup of coffee while I drive in the morning, holding onto it keeps my fingers from going numb (wearing gloves or mittens helps but doesn't totally prevent it). One thing that is kind of good, I have worked in offices where the boss likes to keep it really cool, all I have to do is show him my strange looking fingers and he will turn up the thermostat! Like I said I haven't found it to be all that difficult.

Posted by: Catherine | July 8, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I've had Raynaud's in my fingers for many years, and it now affects my toes also. I have a question. Is there an association between Raynaud's and Peripheral Arterial Disease?

Posted by: Terrie | July 8, 2008 1:30 PM | Report abuse

My mother was diagnosed with Raynaud's in 1970. Tragically, she lost several fingers on both hands as a result of very bad medical intervention that worsened/hastened her condition to the point of severe gangrene. She always had a victorious attitude and began painting china after losing her fingers. Later, she was diagnosed with scleroderma and lived with that until her death in 1994 at the age of 81. She was one of the strongest people I have ever known and complained little of her dibilitating conditions. Luckily, as of now I do not have symptoms. To all of you who have it, please take care and make sure the medical intervention you receive is supported by the latest findings. Back in 1970, it was a crap shoot that had dire consequences in her case.

Posted by: Judith Minter | July 8, 2008 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I have had raynauds since I was a teenager. It occurs most often in two of my fingers but affects both my hands and feet. I have found that swings in temperature are more of a problem than extreme cold. In addition to classic raynauds symptoms I also get occasional ruptured blood vessels in my fingers and toes when exposed to sudden increases in temperature, but drs have not confirmed if this is related.

Posted by: aec | July 8, 2008 4:17 PM | Report abuse

I went to see an orthopedic surgeon a couple of months ago for some foot problems and he told me I have Raynaud's (my bare feet had gotten cold and turned colors while I was waiting to see him). I think I must have a very mild case because it really doesn't bother me much, but it also does explain why I have a habit of keeping my hands between my legs-- it's to keep them warm!

Posted by: JRH | July 8, 2008 8:11 PM | Report abuse

I have suffered from Raynaud's as long as I can remember, but it was only a few years ago that I found out there was a name for it. My hands and feet are affected (white, blue, purple, red -- all colors), anytime the temp goes below 70-75 degrees, inside or out. (My feet also get numb very easily, but that might be from the multiple sclerosis; I'm not sure which one is the cause of that.)

I am miserable 9 months out of the year, trying to keep my hands and feet warm. It seems to be getting worse as I get older (I'm 45). I rarely wear sandals or sleeveless shirts any more, as I don't want to suffer any more than necessary, especially in the summer.

Warm water is the quickest way to get them thawed, but it's a long commute on public transit when I have no easy way to warm up. I did buy some hand and foot warmers this year, and those were lovely! (Too expensive to use everyday, but good for those really cold days.)

Posted by: Sjkrup | July 8, 2008 9:41 PM | Report abuse

I was diagnosed with Raynaud's last year. My hands grow pale, then blue, and redden in response to warming back up. I have the dilated blood vessels or whatever in my fingertips that indicate the condition may be a sign I'm developing scleroderma, and the prospect of that frightens me. I understand it might be years and years before I get it, though. My rheumatologist said Raynaud's is more often linked with rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma than lupus.

I'm not looking forward to another winter in Chicago with Raynaud's. Does anyone have any tips for me? What kind(s) of gloves/mittens work(s) best, for instance?

I've already bought some socks designed for diabetics (Wigwam makes them) for wearing to bed at night. They won't cut off circulation to my toes, and they won't hold in as much sweat as everyday socks.

Posted by: Heron | July 11, 2008 11:31 AM | Report abuse

I have had Raynaud's since I was a teen. Acupuncture helped tremendously; now I only get it when I am totally exhausted, which is a good signal to me to slow down and get some rest.

My MD showed me a trick: when I get it in my fingers, swing the arm of the affected hand around in large circles. It forces the blood back into the fingers much faster, which means less time with pain.

Posted by: lmath | July 13, 2008 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I had this during my last pregnancy and it was more than a mere annoyance. It seems most people get it in their hands and feet, I got it in my NIPPLES. ouch!!!!!

My ob/gyn was fascinated to see what is supposedly so rare. In the winter, I would have to leave to go to work early as I would often have to spend a good 20mins in the bathroom applying warm compresses to my breasts to ease the excrutiating pain.

I'm pregnant again now, and hoping not to have a repeat. I just came online to try to research why my feet are turning yellow, and somehow came upon this topic which I don't think is related to whatever is turning my feet and hands yellowish, thank heavens!

Posted by: Celia | July 14, 2008 12:47 AM | Report abuse

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