I’ve always been a cold person. No, not just my soul—but my fingers and toes, too; many partners have suffered taps from icy feet in the middle of the night. I've always chalked it up to poor circulation, but last October while eating outdoors, all of my fingers turned a disturbing shade of stark white and I couldn’t feel a thing. After aggressively rubbing my hands together to get the blood back (and feeling pin and needles in the process), I went home and researched this surprising experience and learned I have something called Raynaud’s syndrome, a disorder that affects the arteries, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
What is Raynaud’s syndrome?
Typically when you’re cold, your body keeps blood deep inside you to maintain heat—meaning out of your fingers and toes. “All Raynaud’s represents is an exaggerated, totally normal response to cold,” says vascular surgeon Julia Glaser, M.D., and assistant professor of clinical surgery at Penn Medicine.
When a Raynaud’s attack hits, though, the results are pretty shocking. The lack of blood flow causes numbness and pain in my fingers as they slowly turn white and blue. When the blood flow finally returns, they become red with a tingling, burning sensation as my nerves react to the renewed circulation. It might be a cool party trick if it didn’t hurt so badly.
While most people probably feel this when they’ve gone outside in the dead of winter and forgotten their gloves, someone with Raynaud’s experiences this feeling much quicker and in much milder temperatures.
What causes Raynaud’s syndrome?
According to Dr. Glaser, while the cause of Raynaud’s is unknown, there are actually two ways the disorder presents itself: primary and secondary.
She explains that primary Raynaud’s occurs more frequently in women and tends to appear between the ages of 15 and 30. Certain medications, like those used for migraines, repeated physical use, and smoking can also onset the disorder.
Primary Raynaud’s is typically benign and no real cause for concern, but secondary Raynaud’s can reveal some underlying issues and is connected with health conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma, a connective tissue disease. Dr. Glaser says if you notice additional pain or that Raynaud’s only appears in one hand, it might be a sign of an underlying condition. According to the NHLBI, if secondary Raynaud’s reduces circulation enough, it could cause skin sores or gangrene, so it’s worth consulting a professional.
Dr. Glaser says stress is another contributor to a Raynaud’s attack, but it’s less common. Up to 20% of the population could have Raynaud’s, but it’s most commonly reported in people who live in colder climates as that’s where it’s more likely to appear. Aside from hands and feet, the phenomenon can also affect noses, ears, and lips, Glaser says.
How can you treat Raynaud’s syndrome?
“For the bulk of people with Raynaud’s, it’s not a dangerous problem, but an annoying one,” Dr. Glaser says. And she’s right—nothing about my cold hands really debilitates my way of life; it’s just annoying when my pinky suddenly turns white after drinking my morning smoothie.
After some trial and error, here's what I now do to help prevent and treat a Raynaud’s flare-up.
According to Dr. Glaser, caffeine is another stressor of Raynaud’s. “If you’re a huge coffee drinker, you might notice that if you cut back on caffeine that it doesn’t happen as often,” she says. Because of this, I’ve decided to skip my morning Starbucks for the time being. I’ve noticed a decrease in my outbreaks, even when trudging through Boston in the middle of winter.
Keep a cup of warm liquid nearby
When I’m at home, my favorite way to warm up my numb hands is to wrap them around a hot cup of tea. It’s just so comforting. But Dr. Glaser warns to be cautious when warming up with hot items, so you don’t accidentally burn yourself. “I would be careful,” she says. “You don’t want to dunk your hands in really hot water because you can’t feel how hot it is.”
Warm-up my entire body
While the easiest treatment is prevention by mittens and socks, Dr. Glaser explains you can still warm up the affected parts of your hands and feet by warming up your entire body. For me, that means throwing on my cozy Wubby Fleece Pullover after drinking an iced coffee—even though it’s negative 30 outside.
Use a rechargeable hand warmer
When I’m outside in the cold, mittens alone don't always prevent my hands from a Raynaud’s strike, which is where a hand warmer comes in. Hot Hands are nice and all, but I prefer to give my digits a boost through a rechargeable hand warmer. That way, I choose the exact amount of heat so I don’t end up burning myself.
Enact some friction
When in doubt, I rub my hands together. It might look completely ridiculous, but I find that aggressively rubbing my hands on my legs is the fastest way to get the feelings to return to my hands. Tucking your hands into warm crevices in your body like under your armpits or between your legs can also help instantly warm up your fingers, Dr. Glaser recommends.
You can treat Raynaud’s syndrome with medication
If Raynaud’s does happen to impair your life with frequent outbursts or extreme pain, Dr. Glaser says some patients take calcium channel blockers, which are typically used to treat high blood pressure. Some people are also prescribed Sildenafil—which, yes, is essentially Viagra for your hands—to increase blood flow into your extremities.
Although Dr. Glaser says most cases of Raynaud’s are benign, if something is amiss like unexpected weight loss or you’re tired all the time, you should definitely consult with your physician or a vascular specialist. That way, you can rule out secondary causes like rheumatoid arthritis and find specific ways to reduce your own hand spasms.
Always consult with a physician before taking any medication.