What Is Raynaud’s Phenomenon?
Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition that affects the blood vessels in the extremities—generally, the fingers and toes. It is characterized by episodic attacks, called vasospastic attacks, in which the blood vessels in the digits (fingers and toes) constrict (narrow), usually in response to cold temperatures and/or emotional stress. When this condition occurs on its own, it is called primary Raynaud’s phenomenon. When it occurs with another condition such as scleroderma or lupus, it is called secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Who Gets Raynaud’s Phenomenon?
Although people of any age can have Raynaud’s phenomenon, the primary form typically begins before the age of 30 and often runs in families. Women are more likely than men to have Raynaud’s phenomenon. It appears to be more common in people who live in colder climates. This is likely true because people with the disorder have more Raynaud’s attacks during periods of colder weather. For most, the symptoms are mild and not associated with any blood vessel or tissue damage.
Most people with Raynaud’s phenomenon have the primary form, which is not associated with any underlying disease. In fact, in these individuals it is thought to be an exaggeration of normal responses to cold temperature and/or stress.
When Raynaud’s phenomenon is caused by or associated with an underlying disease, it is referred to as secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon. Secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon tends to begin later in life than the primary form.
It is common for patients with a connective tissue disease to have Raynaud’s phenomenon. It occurs in more than 90 percent of people with scleroderma. It is also common in people with systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren’s syndrome. Secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon may also be associated with diseases of the arteries, smoking, and overuse and other injuries that cause trauma to the hands and wrists. And it may be linked to certain drugs such as chemotherapy agents or to chemicals such as vinyl chloride.
What Happens During an Attack?
Attacks of Raynaud’s phenomenon are caused by an intensification of the body’s natural response to cold. When a person is exposed to cold, the body’s normal response is to slow the loss of heat and preserve its core temperature. Blood vessels in the surface of the skin are called thermoregulatory vessels because they react to changes in the ambient temperature. To maintain normal core temperature, these specialized blood vessels in the skin surface constrict and move blood from arteries near the surface to veins deeper in the body. But for people who have Raynaud’s phenomenon, the thermoregulatory vessels overreact to cold exposure with sudden and intense spasmodic contractions of these small blood vessels that supply blood to the skin of the fingers, toes, ears, face, and other body areas.
Once an attack begins, a person may experience three phases (though not all people have all three) of skin color changes—typically from white to blue to red—in the fingers or toes. Whiteness (called pallor) may occur in response to spasms of the arterioles (small branches of an artery) and the resulting collapse of the arteries supplying the fingers and toes. Blueness (cyanosis) may appear because the fingers or toes are not getting enough oxygen-rich blood. Finally, as the arterioles dilate (relax) and blood returns to the digits, redness (rubor) may occur.
Nondrug Treatments and Self-Help Measures
The following nondrug treatments and self-help measures can decrease the severity of Raynaud’s attacks and promote overall well-being.
- Take action during an attack. You can decrease both its length and severity by a few simple actions. The first and most important one is avoid the cold. Warming the body and the hands or feet is also helpful. If you’re outside and the weather is cold, go indoors. Run warm water over your fingers or toes or soak them in a bowl of warm water to warm them. If a stressful situation triggers the attack, get out of the stressful situation, if possible, and relax. Although biofeedback and similar nondrug methods are used, formal studies have suggested they are not helpful.
- Keep warm. It is important not only to keep the extremities warm, but also to avoid chilling any part of the body. Remember, a drop in the body’s core temperature triggers the attack. Shifting temperature (for example, rapidly moving from 90 degrees outside to a 70-degree air-conditioned room) and damp rainy weather are to be avoided. In cold weather, pay particular attention to dressing. Several layers of loose clothing, socks, hats, and gloves or mittens are recommended. A hat is important because a great deal of body heat is lost through the scalp. Keep feet warm and dry. Some people find it helpful to wear mittens and socks to bed during the winter. Chemical warmers, such as small heating pouches that can be placed in pockets, mittens, boots, or shoes, can give added protection during long periods outdoors.People who have secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon should talk to their doctors before exercising outdoors in cold weather.
In warm weather, be aware that air conditioning also can trigger attacks. Setting the thermostat at a higher temperature or wearing a sweater indoors can help prevent an attack. Some people find it helpful to use insulated drinking glasses and to put on gloves before handling frozen or refrigerated foods.
- Do not smoke. The nicotine in cigarettes causes the skin temperature to drop, which may lead to an attack.
- Avoid aggravating medications such as vasconstrictors, which cause the blood vessels to narrow. Vasoconstrictors include beta-blockers, many cold preparations, caffeine, narcotics, some migraine headache medications, some chemotherapeutic drugs, and some blood pressure medications. Some studies also associate the use of estrogen with Raynaud’s phenomenon.
- Control stress. Because stress and emotional upsets may trigger an attack, particularly for people who have primary Raynaud’s phenomenon, learning to recognize and avoid stressful situations may help control the number of attacks. Many people have found that relaxation can help decrease the number and severity of attacks. Local hospitals and other community organizations, such as schools, often offer programs in stress management.
- Exercise regularly. Many doctors encourage patients who have Raynaud’s phenomenon—particularly the primary form—to exercise regularly. Most people find that exercise promotes overall well-being, increases energy level, helps control weight, and promotes cardiovascular fitness and restful sleep. Patients with Raynaud’s phenomenon should talk to their doctors before starting an exercise program.
- See a doctor. People with Raynaud’s phenomenon should see their doctors if they are worried or frightened about attacks or if they have questions about caring for themselves. They should always see their doctors if episodes occur only on one side of the body (one hand or one foot) and any time one results in sores or ulcers on the fingers or toes.