Named after the doctor who first described it in 1862, Raynaud's phenomenon – often just called Raynaud’s - is a condition that affects the circulation of blood in certain areas of the body, most often the fingers and toes, usually when exposed to the cold. It can cause the areas to change colour (white, blue and then red in an attack), become painful, numb, and restrict movement.
It is a fairly common condition that affects women more than men and the most common type usually develops before the age of 30, sometimes running in families. It can be triggered by various factors like stress, cold weather (the most common trigger), and even excess caffeine. It is not usually a serious condition although it can affect people's quality of life, and sometimes can also be linked to other underlying medical conditions.
The full extent of what causes Raynaud’s is not fully understood but we know that it triggers the small blood vessels in the skin to constrict (narrow) and reduce the flow of blood to that area. Over time, repeated attacks can lead to these blood vessels thickening of these arteries reducing the blood flow even more. An attack is mostly triggered by exposure to cold temperatures or stress.
Raynaud's is classified into two types; primary and secondary. Primary Raynaud's (also known as Raynaud's disease) is not associated with any underlying medical condition and is the most common type of Raynaud’s, causing 90% of cases. It usually affects all the fingers on both hands and develops between the ages of 15 and 30. Symptoms vary from mild to significant and can be triggered even by getting something out of the freezer, or by a spell of relatively cool weather.
Secondary Raynaud's is far less common and is related to an underlying medical condition. Because of this it can develop at any age and conditions linked with it include injuries to the hands or feet, carpal tunnel syndrome, scleroderma, multiple sclerosis, SLE and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the impact of repetitive actions or vibrations such as using a pneumatic drill – sometimes also called ‘vibration white finger’. Medications that can cause blood vessels to narrow have also been implicated such as beta-blockers (used in treating hypertension or anxiety), some migraine medication, and chemotherapy treatment.
Most cases of primary Raynaud's can be managed at home without any treatment but it is important to seek further medical review if your symptoms are not improving with home treatment, or if they are getting worse and affecting your daily life. Secondary Raynaud's is more likely to present later in life, so if your symptoms occur over 30 years old for the first time then it is important to seek further advice. Conversely, if it happens before the age of 12 or your symptoms are one-sided, or associated with other symptoms such as joint pain, skin rashes or muscle weakness (which might indicate a connective tissue disease) it is also advisable to speak to your doctor.
There are simple measures you can do at home which will make a big difference to symptoms. These include:
keeping your body and hands warm with the right clothing
taking extra care to protect your hands and feet (including wearing gloves when taking things out of a fridge or freezer)
exercising regularly to help improve your body's circulation
avoiding smoking (this is crucial)
cutting out caffeine as this makes symptoms worse in some people with Raynaud’s
warming your hands up as soon as they become cold (Wearing heated gloves can be helpful with this).
If you have unsuccessfully tried to manage your symptoms or you have any associated symptoms, it is important to make an appointment with your doctor. They will review your symptoms, history, any medication you may be taking, and consider investigating you for any underlying causes such as SLE or rheumatoid arthritis. Your doctor may advise you to start medications that can dilate the blood vessels and improve your circulation, such as the calcium-channel blocker nifedipine, commonly used as a blood pressure medication. Relaxation techniques may also be helpful if you have primary Raynaud’s triggered by stress or emotion, and severe Raynaud’s (usually the secondary type) can sometimes be treated by specialists with nerve block treatment.
The outlook for people with primary Raynaud’s is usually good and in many people, it lessens or goes away completely over time although nifedipine medication works very well for many people too. With secondary Raynaud’s, treatment can work less well and the severity of symptoms is often linked to the severity of the underlying condition causing it. This means that in some people with secondary Raynaud’s, treating their condition as effectively as possible can lessen their Raynaud’s symptoms significantly.
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