My hands are cold almost all of the time. I get cold easily and have a hard time staying warm. When I touch someone, I often have to apologize for having "zombie hands." It has nothing to do with metabolism or body fat. I noticed this issue when I was 14. It was the middle of winter and my bestie and I were totally nuts about the Ramones. We went to a club where they were playing and wanted to be first in line (like in the movie "Rock n Roll High School") so we showed up several hours before the doors opened to prove our loyalty. We were wearing dresses and thick tights. It was winter in NY. My friend, who was more petite than me, was cold. But my feet and hands were in frostbite-feeling pain. Even though I was wearing a long, quilted coat, I was clearly suffering more than her. That day stuck with me, not just because we were front row watching our favorite band in the world and not because Johnny threw me a guitar pick that I turned into an earring, but because I couldn't understand why the cold caused me so much more pain and discomfort than my friend.
Cut to 20 years later when I was living in Grand Junction, CO working as a TV news reporter and anchor. The two winters I lived there were challenging. Operating my camera in the field often required removing my gloves. My hands would inevitably sting then go numb, making camera operation a joke. One day at a gynecology check up, I was lying naked under a piece tissue paper they call a "gown." It always feels like zero degrees in an exam room to me. Is this because the doctor doesn't actually want to you enjoy the time you spend with his lubricated, metal speculum inside you while he's snipping off a piece of your cervix and poking the lining of your uterus? Trying to distract myself from this most pleasurable treatment, I noticed my fingers and toes had turned into bluish tinged icicles. I told the doc about my symptoms and he said, "oh, you have Raynaud's Phenomenon." "Huh?? What do I do about it?" I asked. He said, "well, you probably shouldn't live in Colorado. Try to live where it's warm." Done! When my contract ended, I went back to L.A.
So what is Raynaud's phenomenon (a.k.a. Raynaud's syndrome and Raynaud's disease)? Doctors don't completely understand the cause of it, hence the name "phenomenon" and there's no cure by the way. During an attack, blood vessels in the hands and feet overreact and go into spasm when they sense exposure to cold temperature or stress. It's like only having an on/off switch for your arteries instead of a dimmer switch - the blood vessels just close down instead of gradually attenuating. It's considered a type of arthritis and also gets worse as you get older. Your fingers may also turn interesting shades of blue, purple or white.
There are two types of Raynaud's. I have primary Raynaud's, the more common type and just comes with the cards you're dealt. Secondary Raynaud's is caused by an underlying problem. Some causes include arterial diseases, connective tissue diseases, carpal tunnel syndrome, smoking, long-term repetitive motions like typing or holding vibrating tools, previous injuries like fractures, frostbite and certain medications. Secondary Raynaud's symptoms usually pop up later in life -- around 40 -- than they do for primary Raynaud's.
If you suspect you have primary Raynaud's, as annoying as it is, most of the home treatments and lifestyle adaptations are simple.
- In cold temperatures, always dress extra warm, wear gloves, thick socks and boots.
- Keep stashes of those instant hand-warming packets around.
- If you're a smoker, this is another reason to quit because smoking constricts blood vessels and makes skin temperature drop.
- Exercise regularly to increase circulation. Really, what isn't exercise good for?
- Keep your stress levels down.
- Don't linger in the frozen section of your grocery store. Get in - get out!
- Avoid suddenly going from hot temperatures to cold ones.
This last one is my nemesis. Many gyms have their AC set to around 68 - 72 degrees. After I workout or teach a class, I'm hot and sweaty. Within minutes of stopping, my body overreacts to the AC and soon I'm shivering and touching people with icicles that resemble fingers.
When an attack hits:
- Try to find a warmer place to go.
- Run warm water over your hands and, or put your hands inside your armpits.
- Massage your hands and, or feet.
- If stress causes your attacks, it's time for you to learn stress reduction techniques. You've probably been telling yourself this for a while.
If you have severe Raynaud's you can talk to your doctor about medical treatments. Some medications can help widen the blood vessels like vasodilators and calcium channel blockers, while others medications may aggravate the situation. Sudafed for example, is found in many cold and allergy medicines, and is not great for Raynaud's. Other medical treatments are more invasive like nerve surgery and botox injections. In rare cases Raynaud's can get so bad that skin ulcers or gangrene can appear.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Conditions estimates that:
- 5 to 10 percent of the United States population is affected by Raynaud's phenomenon.
- Seventy-five percent of primary Raynaud's cases involve women 15 to 40 years old.
- 85 to 95 percent of people with scleroderma or MCTD also have Raynaud's phenomenon.
- One third of lupus patients have Raynaud's symptoms.
I've known since I was a teen that something was not quite right. I was glad I finally got diagnosed. Sadly, I had to cross some things off my bucket list.
- Things not to do with Raynaud's:
- Climb Mt. Everest
- Ice Climbing
- Polar Bear Plunging
- Ice sculpting
- Race across the North or South Pole
- Compete in the Ididerod
- Learn to surf in CA (most of the year the water is pretty cold, and the idea of waiting in the water for a wave makes me shiver).
Do you have Raynaud's? Share your stories with me.