A (personalised) overview of Raynaud’s Phenomenon.
February is Raynaud’s Awareness Month, so now seems like the perfect opportunity to write about the often-overlooked condition which I’ve had for most of my life.
Many people say they can’t feel their fingers when the temperature drops, but people with Raynaud’s really can’t – in this blog post I’ll outline why.
Raynaud’s is instantly recognisable by the white or purple/blue colouring of the fingers (and sometimes toes) of those who have the condition when exposed to the cold. I’ve had this condition for most of my life and while it isn’t a huge burden to how I live, it does mean that I am constantly in possession of multiple pairs of gloves and socks. It also means that my friends and family are now used to occasionally seeing me in winter with useless fingers which are paler than you’d expect to see on the average human being. It’s a bit of a shock if I’m going somewhere new and strangers end up on the receiving end of a cold-fingered handshake because my hands have not yet come back up to normal temperature. At least my Raynaud’s provides a nice conversation starter.
Raynaud’s is the blood vessels in the extremities (fingers, toes etc) spasming and closing up in response to cold. This doesn’t have to take a while, just touching something very cold can cause it. I can remember a science event when I was in school where a demonstrator brought round liquid nitrogen for people to touch. By touch, he meant make contact with the test-tube for all of one second before the cold is too much and you reflexively retract your hand. Everyone did that. Not me. I could probably have held that test tube indefinitely had I not consciously removed my almost immediately numb fingers from the tube. Whereas everybody else felt pain as their fingers met the cold, the blood vessels in my fingers just closed off so I felt nothing. It’s the same with ice cold water, or the freezer section of supermarkets. It doesn’t take long for my fingers to look ghostly white when exposed to these sorts of things. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is why I’m more than a little bit apprehensive about the forecasts for prolonged sub-zero temperatures across the UK for the coming week.
Obviously, this state of frozen fingers doesn’t go on forever. The Raynaud’s episode is over when the fingers warm up again and the blood vessels dilate so that blood can once more pass through them. This rush of blood to the area usually results in the fingers/toes turning bright red with some swelling attached. You basically go from having colourless fingers to having colour filled fingers which are slightly larger than normal. Pins and needles or pain can also be associated with it. Usually my fingers will go through a colour change of white to purple/blue to red as the episode progresses.
There’s two types of Raynaud’s. Primary Raynaud’s (which I have) is not related to an existing medical condition. It is thought to run in families and is usually rather mild. Secondary Raynaud’s tends to be diagnosed in older people. It is less common, but is usually more serious as it tends to be as a result of a medical problem or lifestyle choice, such as a connective tissue disorder or chronic smoking.
Is there a treatment, I hear you ask! Not really. Most people are able to cope just fine by wrapping up warm and avoiding overexposure to the cold. However, some people are given medication. In fact, my Raynaud’s has become so severe that I’ve just been put on medication by my GP to try and reduce how often I have Raynaud’s episodes (when your doctor is concerned about how you’ll cope in the continued freezing weather conditions you know your Raynaud’s is bad…) So as an aside: if anyone reading this has any tips as to how to swallow tablets easily, do let me know! It turns out I’m not too good at it…
In very, very severe cases surgery is sometimes performed, where the nerves which control the blood vessels are cut or altered to try and stop them overreacting to the cold so strongly.
So there you have it. I’ll stay as wrapped up as I can in my thermal socks and gloves, and you all know a little more about Raynaud’s. To me, that’s what Raynaud’s Awareness Month is all about.
To find out even more about Raynaud’s, the wonderful SRUK website is here.
As always, you are always welcome to talk to me over on twitter.