by Kimberly Allen, RN
Raynaud’s phenomenon is a disorder in which the blood vessels develop spasms. There are two types of Raynaud’s – Raynaud’s disease (or primary Raynaud’s disease) and Raynaud’s syndrome (or secondary Raynaud’s disease). Primary Raynaud’s is a disease on it’s own where as secondary Raynaud’s is caused by another condition.
Although primary Raynaud’s diseasecan affect anyone at anytime, it’s more common in women than men and it usually manifests between 15-30 years of age. Primary Raynaud’s is also more common in Northern climates where it’s cold. Though no specific gene has been identified, approximately 1/3 of those diagnosed with primary Raynaud’s have a close relative like a parent or sibling with Raynaud’s disease. Secondary Raynaud’s can be caused by other conditions like lupus or scleroderma as well as people that are in certain occupations like someone that operates vibrating tools like a jack hammer. Another thing that can contribute to developing secondary Raynaud’s is exposure to certain substances, smoking as well as certain medications can affect the blood vessels.
Though Drs do not fully understand what causes the blood vessels to develop spasms, they do know there are certain triggers that cause the blood vessels of the hands and feet to over react. The most common trigger is exposure to cold temperatures. Your body’s normal response to cold is to slow down the blood flow to the fingers and toes by narrowing the small arteries under the skin in order to maintain your core temperature. For some reason in people with Raynaud’s this response is significantly exaggerated. People with Raynaud’s also experience the same exaggerated response to heat also. Emotional stress is another trigger that can cause the small arteries in your toes and fingers to spasm. When the small arteries go into spasms the vessels narrow significantly limiting the blood supply to that area temporarily. Over time as the blood vessels have repeated spastic episodes their walls begin to thicken which further limits the blood flow.
The symptoms of both primary and secondary Raynaud’s, though similar, are dependent on the frequency, duration, and severity of the spasms. People with mild Raynaud’s usually only notice some discoloration of their skin when exposed to the cold and maybe some numbness and mild tingling. Those with more severe Raynaud’s usually experience the 3 stages of discoloration. In the first stage the affected area, usually fingers and/or toes, turn white due to the deminished blood supply. Then it progresses to stage two where the area turns blue due to a lack of oxygen and begins to feel numb and cold. Then in stage three the affected area will turn red when the blood rushes back into the area. During this stage the affected area usually begins to throb and tingle. Though not all people suffering with Raynaud’s phenomenon will experience all three stages, most do and it is one of the key components used in diagnosing Raynauds. These “attacks” usually last anywhere from several minutes to several hours. Once the attack has subsided the symptoms graduallly resolve and blood flow returns to normal.
The desired outcome in treating Raynaud’s is to reduce the number and severity of attacks, and prevent tissue damage as well as treating any underlying conditions that may have contributed to the development of Raynaud’s. In most case taking preventitive measureslike wearing gloves or mittens, warm socks and dressing in layers can limit both the number and severity of attacks. Learning relaxation techniques and stress management can help prevent attacks related to stress. However, if these measures are not effective in managing your symptoms your Dr may prescribe medications that can help like calcium channel blockers that relax and open the small blood vessels in your feet and hands. Other medications that your Dr may consider (depending on the cause of your Raynausd’s) are vasodilators and alpha blockers. Some medications work better than others in certain people or may produce unwanted side effects in some but not in others. YourDr will discuss what options are best for your particular situation.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.