Raynaud’s disease (or syndrome) is a health condition which interrupts blood supply to the hands and feet, although other parts of the body’s ‘extremities’ may also be affected. It is most common among teenage or young women and is thought to have a genetic link, although anyone can develop the problem.
The condition is named after Maurice Raynaud, a French doctor who first described the symptoms in the mid 1800’s. Medically, there is a distinction between Raynaud’s syndrome and Raynaud’s disease, but most people are not aware of the differences and use the terms interchangeably, or simply refer to it as Raynaud’s.
Raynaud’s syndrome causes a reduction in blood flow to the ‘extremities’ of the body - these are the areas furthest away from the heart and is the reason the disease affects the hands and feet first.
As blood flow is reduced, the skin turns white, then blue as oxygen supply runs out. As blood flow returns, the skin becomes red.
During the white and blue stage of Raynaud’s syndrome, a feeling of cold and numbness are the primary features. As blood returns, numbness improves, but with the return of normal sensation, you begin to experience pain (sometimes described as burning) and tingling.
In a way, these symptoms are the same as those experienced during and after building a snowman, but only more severe.
There are two ways to answer this question:
- The primary cause of Raynaud’s is basically an over-reaction of the body to cold. Blood vessels have the ability to expand and contract depending on the external temperature – this natural response controls the amount of blood delivered and enables the body to preserve heat. In Raynaud’s syndrome, blood vessels narrow more than necessary when the body is exposed to the cold. This reduces blood supply to the extremities, to the hands and feet
- Raynaud’s syndrome can be present on its own, but often, it is associated with another health condition, usually an autoimmune disorder. Conditions responsible are wide ranging and include rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Although these conditions arise as the result of a fault in the immune response, it is not clear exactly why narrowing of blood vessels occurs.
There are certain measures you can employ to help ease symptoms:
- Firstly, it is important to keep warm, cosy and dry. Even if it is a sunny day, it may still be cold enough to trigger symptoms. Wear the warmest gloves and socks you have and keep your hands in your pockets
- If you smoke, reduce the number of cigarettes you consume or consider stopping completely. Smoking narrows the blood vessels and will only contribute to the problem (as well as other health conditions)
- Try to avoid stress as much as possible. Stress causes blood vessels to constrict
- Exercise regularly, even if only gently, as it will improve blood flow around the body and improve blood flow to your hands and feet.
- Eat warming foods, especially when it is cold. Add spices such as ginger and pepper to your food. Garlic and fish oils have also been shown to improve circulation and can be incorporated into the diet or taken as a supplement
- Make sure you include enough nutrients in your diet, particularly those which support the nervous system such as vitamin B and magnesium.
If you think you suffer from Raynaud’s, see your doctor to have the condition confirmed. Having your blood pressure checked may be important as a low blood pressure (typically below 120/70) may contribute to symptoms.
If you are on medication, check with your doctor that your symptoms are not the result of side effects. For example, some beta blockers can give you cold hands and feet.
Your doctor may prescribe a medicine for Raynaud’s called nifedipine. It does not cure the syndrome but will help ease symptoms. It works by widening the blood vessels, thus improving blood flow. However, there may be some side-effects associated with use of this medicine.
Additionally, it is important to seek medical attention if your Raynaud’s is related to another medical condition.