What is raynaud's phenomenon?

Raynaud's phenomenon: Overview

Raynaud's is a condition that causes your hands and feet to overreact to cold. They may become painful and numb, and they can change colors, becoming very pale and then blue. This condition also is called Raynaud's phenomenon. There are two kinds of Raynaud's. Primary Raynaud's, also known as Raynaud's disease, happens by itself and is the most common form. Secondary Raynaud's, also called Raynaud's syndrome, happens as part of another disease.

In Raynaud's, the small vessels that bring blood to the skin either become narrow, or constrict for a short period of time. This limits blood flow to the hands and feet and sometimes to the nose or ears. Your hands and feet feel cold and numb and then turn very pale. As blood flow returns, your fingers and toes may turn red, and begin to throb and hurt. Raynaud's can be painful and annoying, but it usually does not cause serious problems.

You can take simple steps to protect your hands and feet from the cold. If you have a bad case of Raynaud's and you cannot keep your hands and feet warm enough, your doctor may prescribe medicine.

Raynaud's phenomenon

Raynaud's phenomenon is a condition in which some areas of the body have an exaggerated response to cold temperature or emotional stress. It usually happens in the fingers or toes. During an attack of Raynaud's, the blood vessels in the affected areas tighten. This severely limits the flow of blood to the skin.

Normally the body narrows (constricts) these blood vessels when the skin gets cold. This helps conserve body heat. Stress or exposure to cold temperatures may trigger an exaggeration of this normal body function. The fingers and hands may turn pale, white, and later blue and feel cold to the touch. It can also happen in the feet, nose, or ears. Sometimes fingers or toes feel numb and tingly, as if they have "fallen asleep." Or they may become painful and swollen.

Most cases of Raynaud's phenomenon have no known cause. But some people may develop Raynaud's as a result of frostbite, an injury, or a disease (such as lupus, scleroderma, atherosclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis). Vibrations from power tools or drugs that affect blood flow may also trigger Raynaud's phenomenon. These drugs include nicotine and cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine.

Treatment for Raynaud's phenomenon focuses on preventing attacks by avoiding cold, stress, and other triggers. If your attempts to prevent attacks do not work, prescription medicine may be helpful.

What are the symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon?

During an attack of Raynaud's, the body limits blood flow to the hands and feet. This makes them feel cold and numb, and then turn white or blue. As blood flow returns and the fingers or toes warm up, they may turn red and begin to throb and hurt. Raynaud's can also affect the nose or ears.

An attack most often lasts only a few minutes. But in some cases it may last more than an hour.

How is Raynaud's phenomenon treated?

If you have Raynaud's that is caused by another disease, your doctor can treat that disease. But there is no cure for Raynaud's that occurs on its own (primary Raynaud's). Your doctor may give you medicine such as calcium channel blockers. This may increase blood flow to your hands and feet and relieve symptoms.

How is Raynaud's phenomenon diagnosed?

To diagnose Raynaud's, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and do a physical exam. You'll need to describe what happens during an attack. If you can take a photo of the affected area during an attack, the photo may also be helpful to your doctor.

There are no tests that can show that you have Raynaud's. But your doctor may do a blood test or other tests to rule out diseases that may be causing your symptoms.

How can you care for yourself when you have Raynaud's phenomenon?

Try to avoid things that can trigger Raynaud's episodes, such as cold, smoking, or stress. During an attack, ease symptoms by doing things that increase blood flow. For example, run warm water over your hands or feet. You can also try swinging your arms in a circle at the sides of your body ("windmilling").

What is Raynaud's phenomenon?

Raynaud's (say "ray-NOHZ") phenomenon occurs when the blood vessels in the hands and feet are extra sensitive and become more narrow than normal. The hands and feet feel very cold and numb for a short time. This condition is also called Raynaud's syndrome or Raynaud's disease.

What causes Raynaud's phenomenon?

Often Raynaud's has no known cause. (This is sometimes called primary Raynaud's.)

Raynaud's may be a symptom of another disease, such as lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, or atherosclerosis. It may also be caused by taking certain medicines, using vibrating power tools for several years, smoking, or having frostbite. (This is sometimes called secondary Raynaud's.)

Certain things can trigger an attack of symptoms. The most common trigger is exposure to cold. In the cold, it's normal for the body to narrow the small blood vessels to the skin and to open the blood vessels to the inside parts of the body to keep the body warm. But with Raynaud's, the body restricts blood flow to the skin more than it needs to. Other triggers can include emotional stress and things that affect the flow of blood, such as smoking and some medicines.

Raynaud's phenomenon: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have severe pain in your hands or feet.
  • Normal color does not return to your hands or feet.
  • Your hands or feet do not warm up even after home care.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

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