Cold hands? It could be Raynaud’s phenomenon

Commonly known as RP, Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition where the blood vessels in your fingers and toes overreact to cold temperatures or stress. RP may also affect other areas of your body like your nose, lips, ears and even nipples.

For many people, RP isn’t a serious condition, but for some, the reduced blood flow can cause damage. Key symptoms include:

  • Cold fingers and toes.
  • Temperature changes in your skin in response to cold or stress.
  • A numb, prickly feeling or stinging pain when warming up feeling stress relief.

RP also results in vasospasm. This is the discolouration of fingers or toes after exposure to changes in temperature or emotional events. A three-step skin discolouration sequence happens as the blood vessels slow down the blood flow to the tissues. First, the fingers and toes turn white because of the lack of blood flow. Then, they turn blue because of the lack of oxygen. Finally, the blood vessels reopen and blood gushes in, causing your fingers and toes to become red. It takes about 15 minutes for normal blood flow to return to the affected areas.

Types of RP

There are two types of RP, primary and secondary. Primary Raynaud’s phenomenon occurs with no underlying condition and the symptoms are usually mild. Secondary Raynaud’s is less common and happens as a result of another condition, the most common of which are those that affect your body’s connective tissues, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Secondary RP has more serious symptoms, which sometimes may also include skin sores.

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Who gets RP?

  • Approximately one in 10 people may have some form of Raynaud’s phenomenon, specifically, primary RP.
  • The symptoms for primary RP usually appear between the ages of 15 and 25. Secondary RP symptoms start after 35.
  • Women are more likely than men to have the syndrome.
  • Having carpal tunnel syndrome and working frequently with vibrating heavy machinery, such as jackhammers, increases your risk of RP.
  • Using medication to treat cancer, high blood pressure and migraines, can all increase your risk of RP.

How is it treated?

  • Treatment for RP is aimed at limiting the symptoms and/or preventing attacks.
  • Keeping your hands and feet warm and dry, controlling stress and getting enough exercise can help with this.
  • Your doctor might suggest that you avoid certain over-the-counter drugs that could irritate your blood vessels.
  • For Secondary RP, you may be given a cream to treat sores and blood pressure medication to relax your blood vessels.
  • If your condition is so severe that you’re at risk of losing your fingers or toes, you might need surgery. This may involve cutting the nerves that lead to your blood vessels in your skin to limit how much they open and close. An injection may also be used to insert drugs into your hands and feet to block those nerves.

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