It’s not uncommon for your fingers and toes to feel numb after being exposed to cold temperatures for a long period of time, especially in the winter months, when stepping outside in sub-freezing temps can feel like a shock to your entire system. For some people, however, that numbness isn’t just because of frigid weather—it’s actually due to a disorder of the arteries, and even when wearing a thick pair of gloves, their fingers can still become numb and change in color.
This rare disorder is called Raynaud’s, and it affects about 5 percent of the U.S. population. Raynaud’s impacts the arteries, or blood vessels, that carry oxygenated blood away from your heart to other parts of your body, and in those who suffer with the condition, the arteries narrow, which reduces blood flow to the extremities, particularly the fingers and toes. This occurrence is called vasospasm and it usually develops in brief episodes.
One type of Raynaud’s is associated with other conditions that affect the arteries and connective tissue, like carpal tunnel syndrome or lupus. Sometimes, though, the condition is random and not linked to any other health issues.
If you notice a problem with your blood circulation during cold weather, or during times of stress and anxiety, you may have Raynaud’s syndrome. Becoming familiar with the common symptoms of this condition and the factors that trigger an attack can help you to illuminate whether you do have it (though you should also get checked by a doctor for confirmation) and help you to navigate this uncomfortable and even embarrassing disease.
There are two types of Raynaud’s: Raynaud’s disease, which is more common, less severe and doesn’t have a known cause, and Raynaud’s phenomenon, which is usually more serious and caused by an underlying condition or an environmental trigger.
In most cases, Raynaud’s affects your fingers and toes, but you may also notice symptoms in your ears, nose, lips and nipples.
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When your blood vessels narrow, little or no blood flow can reach your extremities. This causes your skin to appear white at first, and then blue until the blood flow returns. During an attack, the affected extremities may feel numb and cold. Once your blood begins to flow to these areas again, your skin may turn red and begin to warm. The affected areas may also begin to: (1)
Usually, these Raynaud’s symptoms dissipate within 15 minutes, when your blood flow becomes normal again and your extremities have begun to return to normal temperature.
For people with Raynaud’s phenomenon, or secondary Raynaud’s, the condition can be caused another disease or environmental factor, including scleroderma (a connective tissue disease that causes the skin to become think and hard), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, or carpal tunnel syndrome. These diseases affect your skin, blood vessels, and nerves, making you more susceptible to Raynaud’s attacks. (2)
Raynaud’s Attack Triggers (and how to prevent them)
While there’s no treatment that can reverse Raynaud’s syndrome, knowing the triggers can help to prevent flare-ups in the first place. Here’s a list of the most common attack triggers and how you can alter your lifestyle to avoid causing another episode:
The most common trigger of a Raynaud’s attack is cold temperatures. The cold prompts your extremities to go into vasospasm, narrowing your blood vessels so that your fingers and toes have limited blood supply. This can be problematic for people who work outside or in air-conditioned buildings, but keeping your extremities as warm as possible will help to reduce the risk of an attack. You should also avoid washing your hands in cold water, avoid holding a cold drink (especially when you are already cold), and consider wearing gloves when taking food out of your freezer. (3)
Stress and Anxiety
Research suggests that higher stress and anxiety levels are associated with more frequent Raynaud’s attacks. To help keep your anxiety and stress levels at bay, try some natural stress relievers throughout the day, like practicing yoga, engaging in physical activity, meditating, and spending more time in nature. If your anxiety levels continue to increase and these remedies aren’t helpful, consider trying cognitive behavioral therapy, which will help you to redirect your anxious thoughts.
Research shows that the nicotine in cigarettes can increase your risk of developing Raynaud’s syndrome. Because smoking is one of the biggest behavioral factors that play a role in Raynaud’s, it’s extremely important to give up nicotine as soon as possible. (4)
There are some medications that increase your risk of having a Raynaud’s attack. Any drug that causes the blood vessels to narrow can be problematic. Medications used to treat high blood pressure (such as beta blockers), ADHD medications, certain cancer medications (such as vinblastine), birth control pills, and some migraine medications may also trigger an attack. (5, 6)
Hand or Foot Injuries
If you have an injury to your hands or feet, your arteries may not produce enough oxygenated blood for your extremities, causing Raynaud’s symptoms. This can happen after an accident (like a fracture), a surgical procedure, or after developing frost bite.
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