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Hands Cold as Ice? It Could be Raynaud’s Syndrome.

By Usha Rallapalli, MD
Southboro Medical Group Family Medicine

Winters in New England are already pretty tough, but for those with Raynaud’s syndrome, just being outside for a matter of minutes (even with gloves on) can make their hands feel like they are ice cold. Sufferers of Raynaud’s can also experience numbness, tingling, swelling and painful throbbing in their ears, feet and nose as well as their hands due to the cold.

Raynaud’s syndrome (also known as Raynaud’s disease or Raynaud’s phenomenon) is more common in women than in men and affects approximately 5-10% of the U.S. population. People of any age can be affected by Raynaud’s. It is caused by vasospasms that narrow the blood vessels of the hands and feet in response to cold temperatures. This disrupts blood flow, causing fingers and toes to become cold and numb. The affected area typically turns white as the circulation is cut off, then blue due to lack of oxygen, and red when circulation is restored. In addition to the cold, stress and emotional factors can also trigger Raynaud’s.

One form of Raynaud’s is linked to other health problems

There are two main types of Raynaud’s. Primary Raynaud’s is more common and tends to be less severe than secondary Raynaud’s. It also tends to begin relatively early in life. Secondary Raynaud’s has a later onset and is caused by an underlying disease, condition, or other factor. Secondary Raynaud’s has been linked to disorders such as scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and atherosclerosis that damage the arteries (or nerves) in the hands and feet. Your doctor can help determine what kind of Raynaud’s you are suffering from.

Most experts agree the best way to handle both forms of Raynaud’s is to take measures to avoid cold temperatures and stress. Obviously, this is not always easy if you live in a cold climate like New England. To date, there is no medication that eliminates Raynaud’s attacks, but there are some medications that can decrease their severity or frequency. Sometimes those with severe Raynaud’s are prescribed a class of drugs called calcium channel blockers. These medications work to dilate (open up) the blood vessels so the blood circulates more freely. However, these medications do have side effects and are not appropriate for everyone. If you have Raynaud’s, it’s important to not let the cold cause skin ulcers which can lead to serious conditions like gangrene. Topical antibiotics or nitroglycerin paste or patches may be prescribed to protect against infected skin caused by Raynaud’s.

If you believe you are suffering from Raynaud’s it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor to learn more about your problem.

7 tips to help you deal with Raynaud’s syndrome:

  • Always wear gloves when outdoors in cold weather or when exposed to cold temperatures – such as when shopping in the refrigerated section of a supermarket.
  • Dress warmly and in layers to keep your whole body warm. Wear a hat in cold weather.
  • Mittens are warmer than gloves and you may need to wear these if gloves aren’t effective. You can also buy heated gloves.
  • If you are going to be exposed to the cold for longer periods, it’s a good idea to carry hand and foot warmers (found in many sporting goods stores and ski shops).
  • Using insulated drinking glasses or mugs can help protect your hands from cold.
  • If cold, place your hands under warm (not hot) water to warm them up quickly.
  • Don’t smoke – this narrows your blood vessels even more and makes Raynaud’s worse.
Hands Cold as Ice? It Could be Raynaud’s Syndrome.

About Usha Rallapalli, MD

Since her father worked in public health for the United Nations, Dr. Usha Rallapalli moved around a lot when she was younger. This helped expose her to many different cultures. She believes the cultural diversity she experienced when young helps to make her a better doctor. “I think every place I’ve gone I’ve learned something that makes me a better physician,” she explains. “During my career I have taken care of Hispanic,...

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