Raynaud’s disease is a condition of the blood vessels particularly in the hands and feet. In Raynaud’s disease the tiny blood vessels in the fingers and toes suddenly and abnormally narrow. The reduced blood supply to the area leads a host of symptoms as the tissue in the fingers and toes are starved of oxygen.
Sometimes the condition occurs as a consequence of some underlying disease. In this case it is more specifically referred to as Raynaud’s syndrome. However, the vast majority of cases it arises for unknown reasons and is labelled as Raynaud’s disease. It is triggered by cold or stress, among other factors, but these are not the causes.
Causes of Raynaud’s Disease
The arteries in the body have tiny muscles in its wall. When these muscles contract, the artery narrows. Conversely, the artery widens when the muscles relax. In this way the amount of blood flowing to an area can be controlled. In Raynaud’s disease the muscles in the artery wall go into spasm suddenly. While this is not uncommon, in Raynaud’s disease the narrowing may be severe and sustained. It tends to occur as attacks.
The exact cause of Raynaud’s disease is unknown. It is therefore known as primary Raynaud’s disease. It tends to occur more frequently in women and develops around the 15 to 30 year age gap.
People who live in colder climates are at a greater risk, particularly if there is a family history of Raynaud’s disease. However, these are risk factors and not the actual cause of the condition.
Similarly, certain factors have been noted to trigger an attack, particularly cold and stress.
Symptoms of Raynaud’s Disease
Blood partly contributes to the natural colour of the skin. When the blood flow to an area diminishes, the skin appears pale in colour. Severe or prolonged attacks can even cause the fingers and toes to turn blue in colour. Blood is also responsible for the warmth throughout the body, and in Raynaud’s disease the restricted blood flow leads to abnormally cold fingers and toes.
As a result of reduced blood flow and oxygen supply, the nerves in the area cannot function as normal. This is perceived as different sensations such as numbness or tingling but once the blood flow is restored to the area, most patients report a stinging or burning type of pain in the area.
Similarly there are other symptoms that arise once the attack ends, such as swelling and redness in the affected fingers and toes.
Although Raynaud’s disease primarily affects the fingers and toes, it may also involve the ears, nose, lips and even the breasts.
There are several drugs that can dilate the blood vessels, limit tissue damage and reduce the severity or frequency of attacks in Raynaud’s disease. However, it is not a cure and a person living with Raynaud’s has to focus on preventing attacks as far as possible. While stress management is a combination of good coping skills, environmental factors and personality, temperature control can be easier to manage.
People living in cold environments in particular should take precautionary measures as far as possible. Keeping the hands and feet warm and shielded from the cold with proper clothing is important. But just as crucial are conservative measures like heat therapy. Introducing external heat through the use of microwavable wheat bags, heat pads and warm baths increases blood flow to the area.
The body temperature naturally drops slightly during sleep. It is largely due to a decrease in metabolic activity as the body switches to a low energy state. As a preventative measure, especially at night while sleeping, the use of a heat pad can help prevent attacks. It is a safer option than a hot water bottle and does not require constant power usage like an electric heat pad.