Picture yourself out for a nice fall stroll and you notice your hands start to freeze. They get so cold even though the rest of your body is ok, they change colors. Or maybe you take your shoes off after a winter dog walk and your feet are white, blue, black or even red! You had on warm boots but can’t figure it out, so you just jump in the shower to warm up, but they continue to feel frozen and tingly. Perhaps even just grabbing some food out of the freezer is leaving you with numb hands and bright white skin. These are all common experiences for people living with Raynaud’s disease and October is Raynaud’s Disease Awareness month.
- G. Maurice Raynaud was the 19th-century French physician who first took a group of symptoms that affect mainly the fingers and toes and named them after himself. Today’s studies show that 3-5% of Americans may be living with “Raynaud’s”, but chances are even more are going undiagnosed from this disorder. While women seem to be more likely to develop this condition, men can also live with Raynaud’s. It also appears to be more prevalent in colder climates, like Vermont.
According to the Raynaud’s Association (RA): “Raynaud’s (ray-NODES) is a disorder of the small blood vessels of the extremities, reducing blood flow. When exposed to cold, the blood vessels go into spasms, which may cause pain, numbness, throbbing and tingling. Emotional distress may also trigger such a response. The fingers are usually the primarily affected areas, although toes, nose, ears and other extremities may be involved. In a typical case, fingers turn from white or blue (or both) within minutes of cold exposure then become red when they warm up. These color changes, which may vary from person to person, are an exaggeration of a normal response to cold exposure. A normal cold response in the hands is a blotchy red and white pattern. Raynaud’s-type color changes are distinctively different. The disorder has been called Raynaud’s “phenomenon,” “syndrome” or “disease.” There are also two kinds of Raynaud’s and the proper diagnosis is important as Primary Raynaud’s is not linked to other underlying medical conditions while secondary Raynaud’s is. RA goes on to say, “Secondary Raynaud’s is the term used when Raynaud’s is associated with another medical condition or disease, often of a rheumatic nature such as scleroderma, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Often, Raynaud’s symptoms are the first sign that such an underlying connective tissue disease exists. Patients with the secondary form are more likely to suffer more serious problems from Raynaud’s, such as skin ulcers (which can cause serious long-term damage to the blood vessels), or even gangrene.”
Does this mean everyone with cold hands or people who always have cold feet (literally) have Raynaud’s? Not necessarily. The Mayo Clinic spells out symptoms as cold fingers or toes, color changes in your skin in response to cold or stress and numb, prickly feeling or stinging pain upon warming or stress relief. Yes, stress is a factor when it comes to Raynaud’s! Therefore, if you just have cold hands all the time, and it isn’t brought on by exposure to cold or stress and you don’t have any color changes, etc. you may be in the clear. Also, those with Raynaud’s can use circulation and heat to help improve symptoms as well. They aren’t just always freezing. Either way, talk to your physician if you have ongoing or sudden changes that you notice with your hands and feet. Keep in mind that Raynaud’s can also affect other parts of the body too such as lips, the nose, ears and nipples. The Mayo Clinic states that after warming these areas for 15 minutes they should start to return to normal. But if you develop any sores or infections you should immediately contact your doctor.
For those living with Raynaud’s it might seem like its not a big deal but many of us love to be outside, open the freezer or even find ourselves in cold places beyond our control. Therefore those living with Raynaud’s need to be proactive by planning ahead. Those with Reynaud’s should always dress warmly from head to toe, especially when outside. They should also practice keeping warm clothes, gloves and dry changes of clothes and socks available. They may want to wear gloves when taking things out of the freezer or refrigerator. They should warm their cars up in the winter before sitting in them and try to keep air conditioners from getting too low as they can also trigger an attack.
We all know that one person who is, “always cold,” but sometimes we might not be aware that their “coldness” could be a medical condition. One thing we can all do is try to be accommodating and understanding to people who share they have this disorder, and perhaps even talking about it with friends or family who has shared similar symptoms. Sometimes we take being “tough Vermonters,” too far when our bodies are telling us something that needs attention. Raynaud’s can lead to tissue damage and shouldn’t be ignored or pushed under the carpet because it’s just “cold feet.” As the temperatures are dropping here in Vermont, let’s raise awareness about this disease, because everyone deserves to be warm!
Director of The Wellness Center