Raynaud's phenomenon is a common disorder in which the small blood vessels in the extremities are over-sensitive to changes in temperature. There may be as many as ten million sufferers in the UK (that is 1 in 6 of us!) and it is thought up to 20% of the adult population worldwide suffers from varying degrees of the condition. It is found to be more common in females than males and can affect people of any age - babies, young children, adolescents and adults. Many sufferers have never seen a doctor as they are unaware that their condition has a name or that there is anything that can be done to help.
Below are photographs of hands showing classic symptoms of Raynaud's
In this condition, the blood supply to the extremities, usually the fingers and toes but sometimes also the ears and nose, is interrupted. During an attack they become first white and dead looking. They may then turn blue and finally red and burning when the blood flow is restored. There may be considerable pain, numbness or tingling. These symptoms are due to an intermittent lack of blood in the affected parts when the arteries normally supplying them spasmodically contract. An attack will often be triggered by touching cold objects or exposure to cold of any kind. Emotions, such as anxiety, may also play a part as can smoking.
The symptoms of Raynaud's, whether isolated (primary Raynaud's Phenomenon) or secondary to another condition may cause severe pain, discomfort and problems with hand function. For the vast majority of sufferers, Raynaud's is a benign primary condition which may interfere with patients' daily activities but does not cause any long term damage to the extremities.
PRIMARY OR SECONDARY
Raynaud's can be subdivided into primary or secondary. Anyone of any age can develop Primary Raynaud's which occurs spontaneously without any underlying condition being present. It can be hereditary in which case it is usually fairly mild. Secondary Raynaud's is less common and is associated with underlying diseases such as scleroderma, systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. When associated with scleroderma, patients will often suffer more acute symptoms and in severe cases may develop persistent finger ulcers and infection which in very extreme cases may become gangrenous.
Many treatments are available for Raynaud's phenomenon. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition and for those with a mild condition practical measures such as using hand warmers, thermal gloves and hats help to alleviate symptoms. Patients should be advised that an even, ambient temperature is as important as keeping warm because often it is not the absolute temperature, but a small change in the ambient environment, which precipitates an attack. Cold draughty places should therefore be avoided where possible. If the condition is severe the GP can advise on the different types of drugs available, which include vasodilators - drugs which open up the small blood vessels. Patients often have to try several before they find one that works. Many people with Raynaud's try natural products such as vitamins, fish oil, evening primrose oil, gingko biloba and ginger. These simple measures seem to help some patients and are popular as they can be purchased without prescriptions.
Download our leaflet on Raynaud's by clicking here
VIBRATION WHITE FINGER
People who work with vibratory tools are prone to Raynaud's and this appears to be permanent even when the work is stopped. This condition, known as Vibration Induced White Finger or Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is recognised as an industrial disease eligible for compensation. To download our leaflet on Vibration White Finger click here.
Anyone with Raynaud's should be strongly encouraged to stop smoking as it causes narrowing of the blood vessels.