Picture yourself outside on a freezing winter day. Can’t you just feel the tingling cold creeping into each finger and toe? Have you ever come back in from the cold only to worry because a couple digits are still white and numb?
According to Beth Averbeck, HealthPartners Senior Medical Director for Primary Care, you might be experiencing Raynaud’s (pronounced ray-nose) disease – a blood vessel disorder that limits blood flow in the extremities, usually in response to cold temperatures or stress.
With Raynaud’s, your hands, feet or select fingers and toes will turn white, blue or both and take far longer to warm up than the rest of your body. Sometimes it can also affect your ears and nose. Raynaud’s is fairly common, with up to 10% of the population experiencing symptoms, and the majority are women. Learn more about why this happens, how to prevent uncomfortable symptoms and ways to find relief.
Raynaud’s disease (also called Raynaud’s phenomenon or Raynaud’s syndrome) occurs when the blood vessels in the hands and feet constrict in an overactive response to cool temperatures. People with Raynaud’s have extra-sensitive blood vessels that become more narrow than normal, causing their hands and feet to feel temporarily cold and numb. It may happen during the wintertime, or even in an air-conditioned room. It can take 15 minutes for normal blood flow to return after warming.
Types of Raynaud’s disease
There are two main forms of Raynaud’s: primary and secondary.
- Primary Raynaud’s is the most common form (90% of those with symptoms) and isn’t linked to any underlying health issues. Although people might experience discomfort while their fingers are numb and cold, it’s fairly harmless. Doctors haven’t identified any particular reason why this happens.
- With secondary Raynaud’s, there’s a link between these symptoms and another medical condition – usually an autoimmune disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. It can also be caused by other secondary factors, such as taking certain medications, smoking, frostbite or jobs with repetitive motion or vibration (for example, operating a jackhammer).
Symptoms of Raynaud’s disease
Symptoms of Raynaud’s vary from person to person, but generally they can include:
- Cold hands and feet
- Fingers, toes, hands, feet, ears or nose that turn white or blue due to cold or stress
- Nail beds turning slightly blue
- Numbness or tingling
- A prickly sensation or throbbing feeling upon warming again
- Extremities that feel icy cold but are warm to the touch
Symptoms of Raynaud’s include fingers that turn white or blue due to cold or stress
How is Raynaud's diagnosed?
Talking to your primary care doctor is a great first step toward diagnosis. Your doctor can reach a diagnosis by asking you questions about your symptoms and doing a physical exam. It’s also helpful if you can show them a photo of the affected area.
While there’s no test to determine whether you have Raynaud’s, your doctor may do a blood test to rule out other conditions that might be causing your symptoms. If an autoimmune disease is suspected, they may refer you to a specialist like a rheumatologist for additional expertise.
How is Raynaud's disease treated?
If you have secondary Raynaud’s (caused by another health condition, like an autoimmune disease), your doctor can treat that underlying condition, which may help improve your symptoms.
Unfortunately, there’s no treatment for primary Raynaud’s. That’s when it occurs on its own, often due to environmental factors like repetitive work, injury or other stress affecting the area. But you can try to prevent uncomfortable symptoms by avoiding things that trigger the reaction.
Things you can do to help with symptoms of Raynaud's disease
Try these tips for preventing Raynaud’s attacks:
- Bundle up outside – Take precautions in cold weather with thick clothing, especially on your hands and feet. Run the heat in your car before driving in the winter and try using chemical warming packs in your mittens to help keep your hands warm for extended periods outside.
- Stay warm inside – Air conditioning can have effects similar to those caused by cool outside air, so set your air conditioner to a comfortable temperature. You can also wear socks around the house and when sleeping and use an insulated cover when drinking a cold beverage to keep your hands and fingers warm.
- Avoid certain medications – Some medications can trigger Raynaud’s symptoms, including beta blockers (for high blood pressure), hyperactivity disorder medications, sumatriptan and ergotamine (for migraines), and certain over-the-counter cold medicines. Your doctor can help you determine if any of your current medications could worsen your symptoms and how to manage Raynaud’s if you need to continue taking those medications.
- Reduce stress – Emotional stress has been known to trigger Raynaud’s symptoms for some people. Help prevent it by taking care of your mental health and finding ways to manage stress.
- Don’t smoke – Smoking is harmful for your health for a variety of reasons, and making symptoms of Raynaud’s worse is one of them. Tobacco causes your blood vessels to constrict, limiting blood flow and worsening Raynaud’s reactions.
What’s the difference between Raynaud’s disease and poor circulation?
Poor circulation is a generalized condition describing a lack of optimal blood flow, which can be caused by a variety of factors and conditions. Raynaud’s disease is a specific phenomenon involving an overreaction of blood vessel restriction in the cold. But with both poor blood circulation and Raynaud’s disease, doctors will want to check for underlying conditions that may be the cause, in an effort to improve your symptoms.
When to talk to a doctor about white, tingly fingers
It’s always a good idea to talk to your primary care doctor when you have questions or experience an unexpected change with your health. And extremities that turn white and feel numb in the cold would definitely qualify.
While there’s no specific treatment for Raynaud’s, your doctor can help make a diagnosis or connect you with rheumatologist for additional expertise.