With reports coming in about the excessively cold temperatures at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, thoughts turn to the discomfort of having cold fingers and toes. But imagine suffering this discomfort all year round, so much so it makes simple, everyday tasks like buttoning up a shirt very difficult. This is what some sufferers of Raynaud’s Disease experience on a regular basis. February is Raynaud’s awareness month in the UK and campaigns are working hard to increase awareness of this condition, also known as Raynaud’s Phenomenon or Syndrome, which afflicts around 10% of the adult population, with 4/5 sufferers being women.
While most sufferers live with Raynaud’s and are able to get on with their lives pretty much as normal, some sufferers will have to resort to medication to control their symptoms, and in rare cases, their symptoms may suddenly become more severe requiring urgent attention. They could also be an underlying sign of something more dangerous. Below we highlight the danger signs to look out for as well as how to cope when your symptoms become painful.
What is Raynaud’s?
Raynaud’s Disease was named after the French Doctor, Maurice Raynaud, who first described the condition in 1862. It is usually triggered by cold temperatures or anxiety and occurs when the small blood vessels in our extremities, such as our fingers and toes, become over-sensitive and go into a temporary spasm, blocking the flow of blood. Raynaud’s is quite common and is not a serious threat to your health but can be annoying, and extremely painful. Something as simple as getting food out of a freezer can bring on an attack. The condition sometimes starts off in just one finger or toe but over time it can spread to other extremities.
As the blood supply to the extremities is reduced, you may experience the following in the affected areas:
- the skin turning white, blue, or in some cases red
- a tingling sensation
- less ease of movement.
Symptoms usually disappear after a few minutes but can occasionally last several hours.
Who gets Raynaud’s?
In theory, anyone of any age can develop Primary Raynaud’s, and it can come on spontaneously without being caused by any other condition and at any point in your life. It’s not fully understood why some people develop the condition and others don’t. Raynaud’s can be hereditary and typically affects younger women and teenage girls. While symptoms are most often felt in the fingers and toes, it can also affect ears, nose, lips and nipples. The symptoms can also be caused by Beta Blockers so if you are experiencing symptoms and taking any medications, discuss them with your doctor.
First, try entering your symptoms into the Isabel Symptom Checker and if Raynaud’s is included in the list, then take the results to discuss with your doctor. According to the Raynaud’s Association, 90% of sufferers do not seek treatment for the disorder, brushing it off as ‘poor circulation’. However, occasionally Raynaud’s can be a sign of an underlying more serious disorder such as Scleroderma or Lupus (see below), so it’s best to visit your family doctor as soon as possible if you’ve developed symptoms.
Leaving Raynaud’s undiagnosed can make things worse, as stress can exacerbate the problem, so it’s best to seek medical advice to confirm the diagnosis. Primary Raynaud’s is the most likely diagnosis for the above symptoms. However if your Doctor suspects Secondary Raynaud’s, he will need to take a blood test. Secondary Raynaud’s can cause severe restrictions to the blood supply to your extremities so carries a much higher risk of complications such as ulcers, scarring and even gangrene, though serious complications are rare. Most cases of Secondary Raynaud’s are caused by other conditions, usually autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis or Lupus.
Treatment of Raynaud’s
Many patients with mild Raynaud’s won’t bother seeking treatment. Instead, they’ll try to avoid extreme temperature changes and exposing themselves to the cold. If you do get cold, try not to warm yourself back up too quickly as this can make the attack last longer. Portable heating aids can help and your family doctor can advise on appropriate treatment if the symptoms are overly painful or distressing. Regular exercise is also recommended as this will help improve your circulation. For those suffering from more extreme symptoms, medication can be offered for relief, but no cure is available. Smoking is known to provoke an attack as it damages the lining of blood vessels, so quitting smoking as soon as possible is advisable.
What is the link between Raynaud’s and Scleroderma or Lupus?
Raynaud’s is often one of the the first tell-tale symptoms of Scleroderma and Lupus which is why it’s important to visit the doctor when your symptoms first develop as both these conditions are better managed when diagnosed and treated early.
Symptoms of Scleroderma include:
- A tightening and stiffening of the skin, in particular around the hands and feet.
- Puffy or itchy skin
- Difficulty swallowing
- Diarrhoea or constipation
Lupus is diagnosed with the following symptoms:
- Stiff, painful joints
- Extreme tiredness
- Skin rashes, most commonly on the cheeks and nose
- Weight loss
- Swollen glands
- Sensitivity to light
If in any doubt, enter your symptoms into the Isabel Symptom Checker and discuss the results with your doctor.