Cold hands and feet of Raynaud's phenomenon
often effectively treated at home
By: Daniel Palmquist, M.D.
It’s the time of year when just about everyone is complaining about cold hands and feet. For approximately 28 million people in the U.S., however, cold hands and feet are a symptom of a condition known as Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Raynaud’s is a condition where the body overreacts to cold temperatures by restricting blood vessels so that the blood flow to the surface tissues of the hands and feet is temporarily decreased. Typically fingers and toes are involved, although blood flow to the nose, ears and lips can also be affected.
There are two kinds of Raynaud’s phenomenon. Primary Raynaud’s, the most common form, occurs by itself. Secondary Raynaud’s usually occurs as part of another disease, such as lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis or atherosclerosis. Other causes of secondary Raynaud’s include taking certain medications such as beta blockers, using vibrating power tools over the course of a number of years, smoking, frostbite and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Who gets it
Typically, Raynaud’s is more of a nuisance than serious ailment. Most people manage it at home; only one out of five with the condition seeks medical treatment.
In rare cases, blood circulation can permanently diminish, causing ulcers or gangrene. If you develop an ulcer or infection from Raynaud’s you should seek immediate medical attention.
When inside, use oven mitts to take items out of the freezer. Use mittens or gloves when in the frozen foods section of the grocery store. You may want to wear mittens and socks to bed. Drink warm liquids, and use an insulated cup when drinking cold beverages.
In general, take steps to reduce anxiety in your life. Quit smoking. Avoid caffeine and cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine. Finally, include exercise in your daily routine. It can help to increase circulation.
If you do have an attack, rub your hands together vigorously or hold them under warm (not hot) water. Other techniques that work include putting your hands under your armpits, swinging your arms in circles (windmills), massaging your hands and feet and wiggling your toes.
If your doctor suspects that Raynaud’s is an indicator of another condition such as lupus or atherosclerosis he or she may order further tests, such as blood tests. The overall chance that Raynaud’s symptoms indicate another illness is very low.
There is no medication that eliminates Raynaud’s, but some medications are used to decrease the severity or frequency of attacks. Certain medications, such as calcium channel blockers work to dilate the blood vessels.
Raynaud’s phenomenon is more than just having cold hands and feet. It’s not the same as frostbite. The cause of the disease isn’t completely understood, but for some reason the body overreacts to cold or stress by constricting blood vessels in the extremities. Raynaud’s can be controlled or lessened by keeping the body, hands and feet warm. There is no cure for the condition; however, most people manage it successfully at home without the need for medical treatment.
Dr. Palmquist is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.