Raynaud’s phenomenon, or Raynaud’s disease, is a condition that strips your fingers or toes of most of its blood flow. The condition is episodic, which means that it will come in spells where the affected body part becomes cold and pale. You can for example experience white, cold fingers that feel numb when triggered by cold temperatures and psychic stress. When the episode passes, you can experience pounding pain, swelling and redness. In the most severe cases, Raynaud’s syndrome can lead to damages in the tissue, so it is a good idea to keep track of one’s symptoms.
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What is Raynaud’s phenomenon?
Raynaud’s phenomenon is a complex of symptoms that are caused by the body’s efforts to keep warm. Trying to contain heat, it will keep down the blood flow to the parts of the body that are far away from the centre – for example fingers and toes. The arteries are contracted, and if one has Raynaud’s syndrome they go into a spasm and contracts faster and to a greater extent. When they narrow up, the affected body part gets stripped of some of its blood flow, and it will end up getting a white and bluish colour. The most common body parts to be distressed are fingers and toes, but it can also affect the nose, ears and lips.
There are two types of the disease, distinguished by their causes:
Primary Raynaud’s phenomenon
- Debuts in puberty
- Is more common in females than in males
- Gives mild symptoms
- It is not yet discovered why this condition arises
Secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon
- Debuts later than the primary version, often in the age of 35
- Is a result from an underlying illness
- Approximately 10% of Raynaud’s phenomena are secondary
- Gives an increased risk of damaged tissue
Similar affections that can be mistaken for Raynaud’s syndrome is, amongst others, arteriosclerosis, thromboembolism, Buerger’s disease and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Who can get affected by Raynaud’s?
The risk of contracting this condition is not exclusive to a certain group of people, but some groups are more likely to experience it. Young women are, for example, more likely to be affected. A primary Raynaud’s is often making its debut in the age of 15-25, while the secondary is entering the stage a bit later, around 35 years of age1.
You run a bigger risk of Raynaud’s if you:
- are a woman
- have SLE, rheumatic arthritis or scleroderma
- are treated for cancer, migraine or high blood pressure
- are working with tools or machines that shakes or vibrates
- are living in a cold climate
- are smoking or drinking a lot of caffeine
- take non-selective beta-blockers or oestrogen
The origins of secondary Raynaud’s can be diverse. The risk of being affected by Raynaud’s is based on the nature of what other condition you might have.
During your pregnancy, the symptoms for this disease often disappear, since the blood flow is increased in the shallow blood vessels.
The most common body parts that are affected are fingers and toes, but it can also affect the nose, ears and lips. The episode is triggered by cold temperatures or psychological stress. An attack of Raynaud’s lasts for about 15 minutes in many cases, and when it passes the affected body part often turns red and swollen before it is back to normal. In some cases, the spell can last longer, up to a few hours.
The symptoms of the fingers, toes, nose or ears during an episode:
- The body part becomes pale
- The body part is cold and numb
Additional tell-tale symptoms aside from the episodes:
- Negative growth in the affected area
- Wounds that won’t heal
- Bleeding in the cuticles
As mentioned, the symptoms are episodic, which means that they come as an attack and then fades out. The symptoms can vary with the seasons due to the greater probability of experiencing the symptoms in the cold months of the year. Sometimes the episodes can be triggered by small events such as getting something from the freezer or washing your hands in cold water. Women can also sense the symptoms more often when they experience hormonal changes, such as during the menopause.
A person suffering from secondary Raynaud’s is also running a bigger risk of having their tissue damaged by the loss of blood flow. In the most severe cases, you can get gangrene in the affected parts, which can lead to serious damage. Is it, therefore, advised to book a visit to your GP if you experience any symptoms of Raynaud’s.
How is the disease diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine the areas where you experience symptoms. They might screen the blood vessels in the affected areas and look for signs of arthritis and vasculitis, but they can also do some laboratory tests. In some cases, a thermocamera is used to measure the heat distribution of the body.
If you have no underlying disease, the symptoms in themselves are enough for the diagnosis. If you seem to have a secondary Raynaud’s, you are screened for the primary disease. This can be done through a blood test, for example.
How do I treat my white finger syndrome?
In the case of secondary Raynaud’s, the primary disease is treated. For primary Raynaud’s, the focus of the treatment efforts is on stopping the episodes from happening.
Some things to keep in mind is to:
- Keep hands and feet dry and warm
- Be sure to keep your stress levels down
- Refrain from using nicotine and central stimulants
- If you have rings on your fingers, remove them. They can cause severe damage with swelling
- Your GP may lower your dosage of other medications, such as beta blockers, migraine and ADHD medicine
Topical treatment can be given through nitro-glycerin cream or glyceryl trinitrate ointment, before exposure to cold. Calcium blockers can also be an alternative to a pre-exposure treatment. Medicine for controlling the blood pressure can also be relevant treatment. Proven track record from alternative treatment methods like acupuncture or laser therapy is limited.
In some severe cases, surgery can be an option. It would mean that the possible dilation of the blood vessels is adjusted, or that you will get a shot that blocks the nerves controlling the blood vessels in the area. Through procedures like these, you can make your cold, white fingers and toes manageable.