Sudden, intermittent narrowing of the arteries in the hands or, rarely, the feet
- More common in females
- Sometimes runs in families
- Smoking and exposure to cold trigger attacks
- Age as a risk factor depends on the cause
During an attack of Raynaud’s phenomenon, the arteries in the hands or feet become narrowed as a result of muscle spasm in the artery walls. This narrowing restricts blood supply to the fingers or toes, causing them to become pale. Numbness or tingling may also develop in the affected fingers or toes.
In about half of all people with Raynaud’s phenomenon, the condition is the result of an underlying disorder, particularly the autoimmune disorders scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, or Buerger’s disease, all of which can run in families. In some people with Raynaud’s phenomenon, the condition is linked with hand–arm vibration syndrome. Certain drugs, such as beta-blockers, are known to produce the symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon as a side effect.
If there is no apparent cause for the condition, it is known as Raynaud’s disease. This disorder is most common in women aged between 15 and 45 and is usually mild. Episodes are triggered by smoking because the nicotine in cigarettes constricts the arteries. Exposure to cold and handling frozen items can also trigger an attack.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon and Raynaud’s disease affect the hands or feet, last from a few minutes to a few hours, and include:
Numbness and tingling in the fingers or toes that may worsen and progress to a painful burning sensation.
Progressive change of colour in the fingers or toes, which initially turn pale, then blue, and later red again as blood returns to the tissues.
There may be a marked colour difference between the affected area and the surrounding tissues. In severe cases, skin ulcers or gangrene may form on the tips of the fingers or toes.
What might be done?
Your doctor will carry out tests to look for an underlying cause of your symptoms. For example, blood tests may be performed to look for evidence of an autoimmune disorder.
Immunosuppressant drugs may be prescribed to treat an autoimmune disorder. Your doctor may also recommend that you take drugs that dilate the blood vessels during an attack (see Calcium channel blocker drugs). If you smoke, you should stop immediately. Wearing thermal gloves and socks in cold weather helps to avoid the onset of symptoms. If symptoms are severe, surgery may be needed to cut the nerves that control arterial constriction.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.
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