Senior Health

12/21/2021 | By Kari Smith

You’re huddled outside of your car in the freezing cold, fumbling hopelessly for your keys. Your hands aren’t just cold – they’re absolutely numb, pale, and feel like they’re not 100% there. As you shake your head in frustration for forgetting your gloves, you ask yourself, “Is it just the cold? Is it bad circulation?” If this is happening often, it could be Raynaud Syndrome. Such symptoms can be alarming, prompting you to ask, Is Raynaud’s a problem or merely an inconvenience?

What is Raynaud’s?

Raynaud Syndrome occurs when arteries in the extremities spasm and close, thus decreasing blood flow. This happens most often in the hands and fingers, sometimes the feet and toes, and, rarely, the nose, ears, or lips. Episodes may occur daily, weekly, or occasionally and last for a few minutes or up to several hours.

Reduced blood flow in the hands can cause the fingers to become numb, often turning distinctly white or even blue. The color change can be quite noticeable because adjoining fingers or the hand may not experience the color change. For example, the tips of your fingers could be ghostly pale while the hands are a nice, normal fleshy color. Is Raynaud’s a problem? Well, when the affected fingers temporarily lose feeling, normal activities can be more difficult. But that’s more an annoyance than a problem.

When the episode passes, the digits will tingle as blood flow returns – just like when a foot or other appendage “goes to sleep” and then “wakes up.”

Is Raynaud’s a problem? Depends!

A fingertip during a Raynaud Syndrome episode. Image from John Hopkins.

This odd phenomenon can be an inconvenient oddity or a sign of an underlying condition.

Primary Raynaud’s – aka Raynaud’s disease – is the more common of the two types. It’s typically unconnected to any other underlying physical condition and is merely an inconvenience. It can begin to manifest during young adulthood.

Secondary Raynaud’s – Raynaud’s phenomenon – is typically caused by an underlying condition such as injury, repetitive vibrations, carpal tunnel syndrome, atherosclerosis, chemical exposure, thyroid problems, autoimmune disorders, or medications that constrict arteries. Diagnosing Raynaud’s can provide clues into other conditions that might call for medical intervention.

Rarely, and at its very rare worst, Raynaud’s can cause problems if it lasts for an extended period of time. In hampering circulation, it can slow the healing of cuts and wounds and cause scarring, tissue damage, or gangrene.

Although Raynaud’s symptoms are sometimes attributed to “poor circulation,” doctors usually apply that phrase in clinical situations to older patients with narrowed arteries and long-term problems. Raynaud’s is a circulation problem – often in younger patients – that fortunately is typically temporary. Its effects usually subside when the temperature or environment is regulated.

What causes an episode?

A Raynaud episode can happen in response to vibration, changes in temperature, or even stress and anxiety. Episodes may be more frequent in cold weather.

When picturing a change in temperature, you may envision a Polar Bear Club romp in the winter ocean or jumping from a hot tub into the snow. But a Raynaud’s response doesn’t have to happen in circumstances anywhere near that drastic. Mundane occurrences can also cause an episode: a blast of cold air from your freezer while grabbing a popsicle in the heat of summer, walking from a sweltering summer day into an air-conditioned space, or jumping into a hot shower after a cold-weather workout.

How do you treat Raynaud Syndrome?

Although Raynaud’s can be a nuisance, it’s often an easy fix.

Since we know that the reaction is brought about by changes in temperatures, avoid situations where this may happen. For example:

  • Preheating your car in the winter or wearing appropriate outerwear when you go outside – or even in chilly indoor situations – can help.
  • Warm mittens and hand warmers can be especially useful if your hands are affected, wool socks and foot warmers for your feet.
  • Try taking a warm shower instead of hot.
  • Avoid jumping into a pool on a cool day, since the sudden change in temperature could cause a reaction.
  • Using a drink koozie or a thermal mug for an extremely hot or cold drink could prevent a Raynaud’s reaction.

Related: Cold weather safety tips for seniors

When you do have an episode, you can sometimes help get the circulation flowing again. You can massage and wiggle the affected area, run it under warm water, and take a few deep breaths to help yourself relax.

In addition:

  • Talk with your doctor about avoiding medications (such as birth control pills, beta blockers, and some migraine medications) that cause constriction of blood vessels.
  • Avoid smoking (and even secondhand smoke), which constricts blood vessels.
  • If your Raynaud’s reactions are brought about by stress and anxiety, talk with your doctor or therapist about ways to managing these issues, or be prepared with meditation and relaxation techniques when you feel stressed.

For extreme situations, your doctor may even prescribe medications that relax the vessels.

Raynaud’s is usually just an annoying inconvenience that lasts for a short time. While taking regular steps to avoid reactions, also tell your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms so they can eliminate the possibility of any underlying disease or illness.

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith