What is it?
Arthritis is a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders consisting of more than 100 different diseases or conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage and other connective tissues, hampering or halting physical movement. Raynaud’s phenomenon occurs when the blood vessels that feed your fingers and toes constrict in reaction to cold or emotional stress (this event is called a vasospastic attack). Diverting blood flow away from the extremities to keep the body’s core warm is a normal reaction to extreme cold. However, in Raynaud’s phenomenon, the body reduces blood flow to the fingers and toes under relatively minor cold stress, such as holding a glass of ice water or being in an air-conditioned room. The same reaction can be triggered by emotional strain or excitement.
Raynaud’s phenomenon can occur on its own (called primary disease) or it can occur in the presence of another underlying disorder (called secondary disease), usually a connective tissue disease, such as lupus or scleroderma. Most people with Raynaud’s have the milder, primary form. Secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon is not as common as the primary form, but it is often more complex and severe.
What are the effects?
The symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon can include:
- Extreme sensitivity to cold
- Body reacts to emotional stress as if it were reacting to cold
- Skin color changes: Fingers and/or toes (and sometimes ears, lips, nose) turn white due to lack of blood flow (called pallor). The blood that’s left in the tissues loses its oxygen and the fingers turn blue (called cyanosis). Finally, the skin will turn red (called rubor) as fresh oxygenated blood returns to the fingers once the vessels open.
- Coldness, pain and numbness: A lack of oxygenated blood in the fingers triggers feelings of coldness, pain and numbness – the sensation that the hands fingers have fallen asleep.
- Warmth, tingling and throbbing: The quick return of blood to the fingers triggers feelings of warmth, tingling and throbbing, like when your hands “wake up” again.
- Skin ulcers: If your Raynaud’s phenomenon is severe and your attacks tend to last a long time, you may get painful, slow-healing sores on the tips of your fingers.
- Gangrene: In rare cases, a long-term lack of oxygen to the tissues can result in gangrene and amputation of the affected digit.
How is it diagnosed?
Your primary care doctor can usually determine if you have Raynaud’s phenomenon simply by listening to you describe an attack. Determining whether the disorder is primary or secondary to an underlying disease may take some time and testing, however.
What are the treatment options?
For most people with Raynaud’s phenomenon, a conservative approach not using medicines is sufficient to control attacks. For people with more severe attacks, medications can be added.
To shorten the length of an attack once it has started, try these tips:
- Warm your hands or feet in warm (not hot) water.
- Swing your arms in large circles to increase circulation.
- Use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation.
What resources are available?
The Arthritis Foundation leads the way in helping people with arthritis live better today and create better tomorrows through new treatments, better access and, ultimately, cures. We do this by:
- Funding life-changing research that has restored mobility in patients for more than six decades
- Fighting for health care policies that improve the lives of the millions of Americans with arthritis
- Partnering with families to provide empowering programs and information
If you are diagnosed with Raynaud's Phenomenon, some Arthritis Foundation resources that may help you better manage and live with your disease are:
- Learn more about arthritis treatments.
- Discover ways to make living with arthritis easier.
- Understand the causes of pain and the best ways to manage it.
- Discover what is happening with arthritis research.
- Help researchers find more effective treatments.
- Tell Congress more needs to be done for people with arthritis.