Raynauds disease also known as Raynaud’s phenomenon, affects 5 to 10 percent of Americans, but only 1 in 10 seek treatment. Females are an estimated nine times more likely to be affected than males. This disease causes blood vessels to narrow and almost completely shut down. Blood vessels narrow and almost completely shut down. Fingers or toes turn from white to blue and, then, as the blood returns, they flush red.
Raynauds Disease: Causes
Exactly what causes Raynaud’s remains unclear, but a hyperactivation of the nervous system causes an extreme narrowing of the blood vessels.
This can happen when the person enters a cold place, opens a freezer, or puts their hands in cold water.
Some people experience symptoms when faced with stress, even without an associated drop in temperature.
In healthy individuals, the circulatory system in the extremities, such as the fingers and toes, can conserve heat in cold conditions. The small arteries that supply the skin with oxygen narrow to minimize the amount of heat lost through the exposed skin surface.
In people with Raynaud’s disease, this narrowing is excessive. This is what causes the blood vessels almost to shut down.
Raynauds Disease: Symptoms
Raynaud’s disease affects some people when they are exposed to the cold.
When temperatures drop, the blood vessels contract in the fingers or toes. This contraction causes hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, to the affected tissues. Fingers and toes will feel cold to the touch and possibly numb.
Often, the affected area will turn white, then later turn blue. Once the area is warmed and blood flow returns, a tingling sensation may accompany a red flush and, possibly, swelling. There may also be a painful, throbbing sensation.
Toes and fingers are most commonly affected, but Raynaud’s can affect the nose, lips, and ears.
An episode lasts around 15 minutes, including the time it takes for the body to normalize.
Raynauds Disease: Treatments
There is no cure for Raynaud’s disease, but there are ways to manage symptoms.
For mild forms of Raynaud’s disease, covering exposed skin before leaving the house can help. If an attack occurs, soaking the affected parts in warm, not hot, water can alleviate symptoms and prevent them from worsening.
If stress is a factor, learning to manage stress can help.
For moderate to severe cases, medication may be necessary.
Raynauds Disease: Medications
Alpha-1 blockers can counter the effect of norepinephrine, which constricts blood vessels. Examples include doxazosin and prazosin.
Dihydropyridine calcium channel blockers relax the smaller blood vessels of the hands and feet. Examples include amlodipine, nifedipine, and felodipine.
Topical nitroglycerin ointment applied to the affected area appears to relieve the symptoms by improving blood flow and cardiac output and decreasing blood pressure.
Other vasodilators dilate the veins, easing symptoms. Examples include losartan, sildenafil (Viagra), fluoxetine (Prozac), and prostaglandin.
In very severe cases, more invasive procedures are an option:
Nerve surgery: Sympathectomy
The blood vessel constriction that causes Raynaud’s is controlled by sympathetic nerves in the affected areas. A surgeon can make small incisions and strip the nerves away from the blood vessels. This will decrease the frequency or severity of attacks. But, keep in mind this technique is not always successful.
Local anesthetics or Botox, work well for some people. However, the effect will wear off, and treatment will need repeating.
Raynauds Disease: How To Cope
People who are prone to Raynaud’s can take measures to avoid some triggers.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) suggest:
- wrapping up and keeping the house warm when temperatures are cold
- as far as possible, avoiding emotional stress
- exercise to promote a healthy lifestyle and reduce stress
- avoiding medicines and substances that trigger the symptoms
- limiting consumption of caffeine and alcohol
- not smoking
They also suggest following up with a physician, especially if sores develop on the extremities. Getting medical help may prevent a worsening of symptoms and serious complications.