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What is Raynaud’s disease?
Raynaud’s disease is a rare condition. It is a narrowing of your blood vessels. The condition affects the blood to your skin, mainly to your fingers and toes. It is sometimes called Raynaud’s phenomenon or syndrome.
Symptoms of Raynaud’s disease
The reduced blood flow causes your skin to turn white or blue. Affected areas may feel cold, numb, or painful. In rare cases, Raynaud’s may affect your nose, ears, nipples, or lips.
Raynaud’s episodes can last several minutes or hours. They can be frequent or spread out. Certain events or environments may trigger them. The disease may affect one finger or toe, or spread to others. Once it’s over, your skin turns red as the blood rushes back. It may tingle or throb as it warms up again. It can take up to 15 minutes for blood flow to return to normal.
Some people who have Raynaud’s may develop skin sores or infections. These occur over long periods of time or repeat episodes. Few people have long-term tissue damage from the disease.
What causes Raynaud’s disease?
There are two types of Raynaud’s disease.
Primary Raynaud’s disease is more common. It represents about 80% of cases. The cause of this type is unknown. It can occur when the blood vessels in your hands or feet overreact to stress and/or cold temperatures. Symptoms are mild with this type. You can treat these with lifestyle changes.
Secondary Raynaud’s disease is more serious. It may require both medicine and lifestyle changes. Other health issues, medicines, or injuries can cause this type. Related health issues include:
- Connective tissue disorders, such as polymyositis/dermatomyositis, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, Sjögren’s syndrome, or lupus.
- Glandular disorders, such as hypothyroidism.
- Blood disorders, such as cold agglutinin disease or polycythemia vera.
- Neoplastic (cell growth) disorders, such as carcinoid syndrome or paraneoplastic syndrome.
- Problems that affect the nervous system, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Vascular disorders, such as thoracic outlet syndrome.
- Artery diseases, such as atherosclerosis(hardening of the arteries), Buerger’s disease, or pulmonary hypertension.
Some medicines may trigger secondary Raynaud’s. These include:
- Certain beta blockers used to treat high blood pressure.
- Migraine medicines that contain ergotamine.
- Medicines that contain estrogen, such as birth control pills.
- Chemotherapy medicine, such as cisplatin or vinblastine.
- Certain cold medicines that cause blood vessels to narrow, such as those containing pseudoephedrine.
Raynaud’s disease affects about 3% to 5% of people. Primary Raynaud’s usually occurs between 15 and 25 years of age. It is more common in women and people who live in colder climates. People who have a family history of the disease are at a greater risk. Secondary Raynaud’s usually occurs later in life, in people 30 years of age and older.
How is Raynaud’s disease diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam and review your symptoms. Tell your doctor if episodes occur more when you are cold and/or stressed. Your doctor may trigger an episode using cold water or air to see your response. He or she also will ask if Raynaud’s or related health issues run in your family. Your doctor may check the blood vessels in your fingernails. Blood tests can help identify the type of the disease or other issues that cause your symptoms.
Can Raynaud’s disease be prevented or avoided?
You cannot avoid Reynaud’s disease. If you have a related health issue, talk to your doctor to see if you have Reynaud’s as well. Other factors that may affect your risk of Reynaud’s include:
- Family history.
- Certain medicines (see list above).
- Injuries to your hands or feet.
- Living in a colder climate.
- Chemical exposure.
- Occupations that involve repetitive motion or vibration. This can damage certain nerves that control blood flow in your body.
Raynaud’s disease treatment
Talk to your doctor about treatment options. They vary based on your type of Raynaud’s and overall health. You can make lifestyle changes to reduce episodes and symptoms. These include:
- Reduce exposure to the cold or extreme temperature changes. Examples are going outdoors in winter or removing items from a freezer.
- Wear extra warm clothing to protect yourself from the cold.
- Quit smoking.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol.
- Exercise to increase blood flow, especially for primary Raynaud’s disease.
- Avoid wearing clothing or jewelry that is too tight.
People who have secondary Raynaud’s, intense symptoms, and/or frequent episodes may need medicine. Types of medicines that can help include:
- Certain calcium channel blockers. These medicines relax your small blood vessels so they can open up again. They also help reduce the frequency and length of episodes.
- Alpha blockers. These help prevent the hormone epinephrine from constricting your blood vessels.
- Medicines that help blood cells flow through small channels better.
- ACE inhibitors.
- Intravenous (IV) prostaglandins.
For symptoms that can’t be controlled using these methods, talk to your doctor about new medicines that may help. They may be able to inject medicine in the affected area. This can help block the nerves that trigger the blood vessel changes. You may need this treatment more than once.
Severe episodes (complete lack of blood flow) can lead to losing a finger or toe. Surgery can improve blood flow to your fingers and toes, or block certain nerves. In rare cases, the doctor may need to remove damaged or destroyed tissue.
Living with Raynaud’s disease
There is no cure for Raynaud’s disease. Both types are lifelong conditions. Research is underway to improve diagnosis and treatment. Lifestyle changes and other treatment help to manage your symptoms. If a health issue is causing secondary Raynaud’s, you will need treatment for that condition as well. Below are tips on how best to cope with Raynaud’s episodes.
- Get warm. Move inside or to a warmer place. Warm your hands or feet with warm water or chemical warmers. These are small packets that you can put in your gloves, pockets, or shoes.
- Move around. Wiggle your fingers and toes. Move your arms or legs in wide circles.
- Promote blood flow. Massage your fingers and toes.
- De-stress. Get away from and avoid anxious situations.
Contact your doctor right away if:
- Symptoms occur on only one side of your body.
- You get sores or ulcers on your fingers or toes.
- You develop gangrene, which is decaying body tissue.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do I know if I have primary or secondary Raynaud’s disease?
- If I have Raynaud’s, will my children get it?
- Am I at risk of infection in my affected body part(s)?
- Does Raynaud’s disease put me at risk for other health problems?
- How long do I have to take medicine?
- What can I do at home to prevent episodes?
- Is it safe for me to exercise? What kind of exercise should I do?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.