Cold hands … warm smart: Raynaud’s awareness month

Hands up if you’ve ever heard of Raynaud’s syndrome. Anyone? Right. Well, three things to start with. One: it’s pronounced Ray-nose. Two: It’s more common than you might think – about 5% of the general population. And, three: February is Raynaud’s awareness month. Now you’re aware. But there’s so much more to know.

What happens during an episode

Honestly, it’s a bit weird. For me, it’s that the fingers on my right hand go corpse-cold, the skin turns even paler than usual, and then there’s quite a lot of tingling discomfort when normal blood flow returns. My Raynaud’s is mild and can be pretty reasonably controlled by remembering to wear my compression gloves when I’m going out in the cold or putting them on when I feel an episode starting. For others with Raynaud’s, cold fingers and toes can turn from white to blue to red, followed by numbness, tingling or pain and then, potentially, throbbing and more pain. Episodes can last from a few minutes (mine are usually about 5–15 minutes) up to several hours (ouch).

How episodes are triggered

Raynaud’s episodes are, unsurprisingly, triggered by temperature changes, but also stress or anxiety. These stimuli cause spasms of the small arteries in the extremities, which in turn temporarily stops the normal blood supply to the area – e.g. the fingers – and results in the symptoms described above. These factors are consistent across the primary and secondary types of Raynaud’s.

Who gets Raynaud’s syndrome

In primary Raynaud’s, the condition develops by itself and is idiopathic (no known underlying cause). Symptoms are typically mild and manageable. Risk factors include female gender, age of 15–30 years, living in a colder climate, and having a relative with Raynaud’s. Secondary Raynaud’s develops in response to another condition, often an underlying disease such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma. A little detective works suggests that my Raynaud’s has come along for the ride with joint hypermobility syndrome.

But it can also happen as a result of doing repetitive work that causes strain or trauma, such as operating tools that vibrate. Spending 22 years at a keyboard and mouse probably hasn’t helped my Raynaud’s matters, nor all those ill-advised years I was a smoker – smoking, chemical exposure and certain medications can also bring on secondary Raynaud’s.

Why it matters

There’s no cure for Raynaud’s and, over time, the microvasculature can thicken due to the spasms, further limiting blood flow. Though very rare, this development can lead to tissue damage or sores, and even dead tissue, all of which can be difficult to treat. More importantly, for 90% of people with scleroderma – a rare disease that causes skin and connective tissue to harden – Raynaud’s was the first symptom.

Management options are mostly things you can do for yourself: avoid the cold, stop smoking, take exercise regularly, use relaxation techniques, and wearing layers for warmth – which is why I can often be seen wearing my gloves, even when the rest of me is warm. If your symptoms are really interfering with life, there are medications, such as calcium-channel blockers and possibly even Botox, that can help, even if they don’t cure.

Scleroderma and Raynaud’s UK is leading the charge on awareness this month. If you know someone with these symptoms, it may be important that they be checked for scleroderma. Read more and get involved at SRUK’s website.

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