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When Cold Hands Won't Warm Up

Wintertime is here, and you’re going to get cold. There’s no getting around having chilly hands sometimes. But what does it mean when your hands just can’t warm back up? You may have a condition known as Raynaud’s Phenomenon (also referred to as Raynaud’s Disease or Raynaud’s Syndrome).

What Does This Mean?

Raynaud’s Phenomenon is a condition when the small blood vessels in body parts such as fingers and toes constrict in response to cold temperatures or stressful situations, decreasing blood flow to the area. This can cause the fingers to turn different colors, such as purple, blue, or white, and can also result in pain, tingling, or numbness. The fingers will also become bright red when the blood flow returns.

“Your blood vessels around the fingers constrict naturally anyway, but Raynaud’s Phenomenon is an overexuberant or unnatural pathologic response to a cold stimuli,” says Christopher Goodenough, MD, MPH, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at University of Utah Health.

Raynaud’s is a common condition that affects 1 in 20 people in the United States. While Raynaud’s can be bothersome, it’s usually nothing to be too concerned about. However, it’s important to keep it under control so that it doesn’t become dangerous.

“It can progress to where people are chronically not getting enough blood flow to their fingers, and it can cause wounds,” Goodenough says. “In the most severe cases, the fingers aren’t getting enough blood, and the finger can’t survive.”

If your fingers are routinely turning colors in the cold to the point where you are experiencing regular discomfort, or if you have developed wounds on your fingers, it’s time to see a doctor.

The Different Types

There are two types of Raynaud’s Phenomenon: primary and secondary.

  1. Primary Raynaud’s: The cause for primary Raynaud’s is not clear. It typically has mild symptoms, such as skin color changes to purple, blue, or white, numbness, or pins and needles feeling in the fingers or toes.

  2. Secondary Raynaud’s: Certain underlying conditions can cause secondary Raynaud’s, particularly if it’s a condition that reduces blood flow to your fingers and toes. Some common causes of secondary Raynaud’s include rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, lupus, carpal tunnel syndrome, atherosclerosis, and frostbite.

However, some non-disease factors are related to secondary Raynaud’s, such as:

  • Smoking cigarettes, which constricts the blood vessels

  • Occupational factors, such as frequent use of heavy power tools like chainsaws or sanders

  • Certain medications, including beta blockers and some chemotherapy agents

Keeping the Cold Under Control

You can help control Raynaud’s attacks by avoiding triggers. Some helpful lifestyle changes to keep your Raynaud’s at bay include the following:

  • Keep hand warmers and mittens within reach, especially if you know you’re going to be in cold conditions.

  • Avoid getting your hands and feet wet. Pack an extra pair of dry mittens and socks just in case.

  • Keep your home or office warm.

  • Wear plenty of layers to ensure your whole body stays warm.

  • Wear oven mitts if you need to reach into the fridge or freezer.

  • Use a beverage sleeve when drinking something cold.

  • Get plenty of exercise to encourage blood circulation.

  • Avoid smoking cigarettes.

If these measures aren’t working, talk with your doctor to discuss potential medications that improve circulation. If you have secondary Raynaud’s, be sure you are adequately treating the underlying condition that is causing it.

Another intervention that can help with Raynaud’s is Botox.

“Your blood vessels have muscles around them that control exactly how much blood flow you’re getting,” Goodenough says. “If we can relax those muscles using Botox, a lot of times that helps people’s symptoms.”

If you have severe Raynaud’s, meaning you have wounds or all other treatment options have failed, you may be a candidate for surgery. In this procedure, some of the nerves and muscles around the blood vessels are removed.

Your doctor will help you determine which course of treatment is most appropriate for your Raynaud’s.