Raynaud's phenomenon is a disorder that causes the blood vessels in the fingers and toes to constrict, which results in discoloration, numbness and/or throbbing or tingling. The attacks are triggered by exposure to cold temperatures or, sometimes, emotional stress.
When someone with Raynaud's phenomenon is exposed to cold or experiences a stressful situation, blood flow to the extremities is reduced. The small blood vessels that supply blood to the fingers, toes, and sometimes nose, lips or earlobes, contract. As these arteries constrict, or even collapse, the affected area changes in color and feeling. During an attack, the digits might turn white, blue or red, and can also feel cold or numb. When the attack ends, the return of the blood flow can cause throbbing, tingling or swelling.
In 1862, a French physician, Maurice Raynaud, published the first report of the condition later named Raynaud's phenomenon. In his report, he described a young woman whose fingertips changed colors when she was exposed to cold or experienced emotional stress. Between 5-10% of the U.S. population are estimated to have Raynaud's phenomenon. Other names for Raynaud's phenomenon include Raynaud's syndrome and Raynaud's disease.
To prevent attacks, those who suffer from Raynaud's phenomenon can take precautionary measures including dressing warmly, reducing stress, exercising regularly and not smoking. Other helpful behaviors include using insulated glasses for drinking, wearing gloves when handling frozen or refrigerated foods, and using foot and hand warmer devices, such as those sold in sporting goods stores. Because even air conditioning can trigger an attack, dressing in layers is advantageous.
Once an attack occurs, moving indoors and using warm water to warm the extremities can shorten the duration of an episode. Learning to relax is also beneficial to some patients with Raynaud's phenomenon. Biofeedback techniques, in which the sufferer learns to increase the blood supply to his or her extremities, are helpful in some cases.
There are two forms of Raynaud's phenomenon. The primary form, which is the milder form, occurs in persons with no underlying medical disease or problems. The most likely patient is a woman between the ages of 15 and 40. The secondary, and more serious, form of Raynaud's phenomenon occurs in people who have connective tissue diseases, such as lupus, scleroderma, SjÃ¶gren's syndrome, dermatomyositis, polymyositis or rheumatoid arthritis.
Other possible causes of secondary Raynaud's phenomenon include carpal tunnel syndrome, obstructive arterial disease and some medications. Certain occupations that involve exposure to certain chemicals or toxic substances, or those that involve the use of vibrating tools, such as a jackhammer, can also trigger the secondary form of the disorder.
Although there is no cure for Raynaud's phenomenon, drug treatment is successful in some cases. Oral medications include calcium channel blockers and alpha blockers. Calcium channel blockers, which dilate the blood vessels and promote circulation, work for many patients. Some patients who have developed skin ulcers apply a nitroglycerin paste to affected fingers.