If your fingers go deathly pale in the cold and lose all sensation, you might suffer from Raynaud’s syndrome. Cold weather is unpleasant at the best of times, but freezing temperatures and adverse conditions can make the condition particularly challenging.
We speak to family GP Dr Roger Henderson about how best to manage the condition:
What is Raynaud’s syndrome?
Raynaud’s syndrome (also known as Raynaud’s phenomenon) is a disorder that affects your blood circulation and mainly targets your fingers and toes. It comes on when you’re cold, anxious or stressed and tends to occur during the winter months. There are two main types of Raynaud’s syndrome:
- Primary Raynaud’s: which happens without an obvious cause or reason.
- Secondary Raynaud’s: which is usually linked to another health problem.
Vibration white finger (VWF), also known as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), is a secondary form of Raynaud’s syndrome, triggered by continuous use of vibrating hand-held machinery such as pneumatic drills and power tools, usually in an industrial environment.
⚠️ If you suffer from Raynaud’s syndrome, vibrations can trigger a similar Raynaud’s attack, for example riding a motorbike or moped in cold conditions.
Raynaud’s syndrome symptoms
Raynaud’s essentially causes the blood vessels to narrow in response to external triggers including stress and cold temperatures, causing your extremities to go numb and lose colour, as if all of the blood has drained from your digits.
It can impact one or more fingers and tends to be extremely painful. The symptoms can also include numbness, pins and needles, white bloodless fingers or toes and difficulty moving your extremities.
Can anyone get Raynaud’s syndrome?
People of all ages can suffer from Raynaud’s. ‘It may run in families, but the primary form is the most common type, typically starting between the ages of 15 and 25,’ says Dr Henderson. ‘It is most common in women and people living in cold places or working in cold environments.’
‘Secondary Raynaud’s tends to start after the age of 35-40, and is most common in people with connective tissue diseases, such as scleroderma, Sjögren’s syndrome and lupus,’ he adds.
How do I know it’s Raynaud’s syndrome?
If you suffer from Raynaud’s syndrome, you will have a stronger reaction to the cold or stress and your blood vessels will likely narrow much faster and tighter than normal.
‘This is called an ‘attack’ of Raynaud’s,’ says Dr Henderson. ‘During such an attack, the fingers and toes can change colour, going from white to blue to red, and may also feel cold and numb from lack of blood flow. As the attack ends and blood flows back to normal, the affected parts of the body can throb, tingle or be very painful.’
After the cold parts of your body warm up, normal blood flow usually returns in about 15 minutes.
How do I manage Raynaud’s syndrome?
The treatment of Raynaud’s syndrome aims to reduce the number of attacks occurring, making them less severe, preventing tissue damage and stopping the loss of any tissues of the fingers and toes.
‘Primary Raynaud’s phenomenon does not lead to tissue damage, so non-drug treatment is used first here,’ says Dr Henderson, ‘whereas treatment with medication is more common with secondary Raynaud’s.’
How to prevent a Raynaud’s attack
To minimise the chances of a Raynaud’s attack, try the following:
✔️ Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can prevent attacks.
✔️ Keep your hands and feet warm and dry.
✔️ Warm your hands and feet with warm water.
✔️ Avoid air conditioning.
✔️ Wear gloves to touch frozen or cold foods.
✔️ Wear multiple layers of loose clothing and a hat when it’s cold.
✔️ Don’t smoke – smoking narrows blood vessels even further.
✔️ Exercise regularly to boost blood flow.
✔️ Use chemical warmers, such as small heating pouches that can be placed in pockets, gloves, boots or shoes.
⚠️ For severe cases of Raynaud’s syndrome and Vibration white finger, prescribed drugs may be used to reduce the attacks and you may be referred to a specialist for assessment. Ask your GP for advice.