Raynaud's Disease - could this be the cause of your freezing hands and feet?

What you need to know about this uncomfortable condition

Raynaud's disease
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s not unusual to get frostbitten hands and feet in middle of winter, but if it happens throughout the year, and your extremities get numb or change colour too, it could be Raynaud's Disease. We get the lowdown on this common phenomenon.

Scleroderma and Raynaud’s UK (SRUK) – the UK charity that helps people live with either condition, estimate that up to 10 million people in the UK have Raynaud's disease, although the signs and symptoms are often misunderstood. The onset of the condition is usually between the ages of 20 and 40, and it affects more women than men.

What is Raynaud's Disease?

Raynaud's Disease is a condition that affects the hands and feet. It causes the fingers or toes to over respond to changes in temperature and stress. During a Raynaud's attack the fingers can sometimes change colour, turning white, blue, or red.

There are two forms of Raynaud's: primary and secondary. "Primary is usually the less serious of the two types as the condition is mild and manageable, whilst people experiencing secondary Raynaud's will usually have more severe symptoms," explains Sue Farrington, CEO ofSRUK.

What are the symptoms of Raynaud's Disease?

If you experience any of these symptoms, it could be Raynaud's.

  • A colour change in your hands or feet
  • Cold and numb extremities
  • Tingling or pain

What causes Raynaud’s?

What causes primary Raynaud's?

Primary Raynaud's isn’t linked to any other health problems and is the most common form of Raynaud’s. "It seems it is caused by disruptions in how the nervous system controls blood vessels, but exactly what causes these disruptions is unclear," says Sue.

What causes secondary Raynaud's?

Secondary Raynaud's may be caused by an underlying health condition that causes the blood vessels to overreact.These are the autoimmune conditions – which causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue – that are often associated with secondary Raynaud's:

  • Scleroderma – a condition that results in thickening and hardening of the skin
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – causing joint pain and swelling
  • Sjogren's syndrome – a condition that sees the immune system attacking the body's sweat and tear glands
  • Lupus – causing tiredness, joint pain and skin rashes

What can trigger a Raynaud’s attack?

‘The cause of the condition is still unknown and we're still not sure why some people get Raynaud's, while others don't," says Sue. It is known however that attacks may be triggered by a change in temperature, emotional changes, stress, or hormones.

How can Raynaud's Disease be treated?

Although there's no cure for Raynaud's Disease, the uncomfortable symptoms can be treated. Staying warm, managing stress and having a healthy lifestyle is recommended, but if there is no improvement by making these everyday changes, you can speak to your doctor about further treatment.

"One drug, Nifedipine, a calcium channel blocker, is licensed for Raynaud's, and there are drugs that are prescribed commonly for Raynaud's too," explainsSue. "Nifedipine doesn't cure Raynaud's, but can help to relieve symptoms. Other medications have been used to treat Raynaud's, with mixed results, so speak to your GP for advice on further treatment."

What to try?

The NHS advise the following to help manage Raynaud's Disease

• Keep your home warm

• Wear warm clothes during cold weather – especially on your hands and feet

• Exercise regularly – this helps improve circulation

• Try breathing exercises or yoga to help you relax eat a healthy, balanced diet

Diagnosing Raynard's

If you, or someone you know, are displaying any of the above symptoms of Raynaud’s Disease, you can take SRUK’s online test at www.sruk.co.uk/testme

A Raynard's diesease case study - Suzie's story

Suzie, 44, from Nottingham, is a paramedic who has primary Raynaud’s

“I first went to my GP after one of my colleagues noticed that I was struggling with my fingers and toes. She encouraged me to get tested in case I had scleroderma.

“It turned out I had Primary Raynaud’s. I particularly struggle in winter because my feet become very painful and it's difficult to go out and about. Driving is often a problem too, as it sets off my hands. I really used to struggle with taking my kids out to the park because of the pain in my hands and feet when I’d have an episode.

“I chose not to take medication for Raynaud’s because it’s also a blood pressure medication, so I handle it by staying warm and adapting where necessary. I use a device that defrosts my car in the morning before I get in, which helps prevent attacks. I also wear rubber gloves to keep my fingers warm and if I keep my lower arms warm and covered, I am usually okay.

“I also have a very expense pair of wellies that are insulated and they make a huge difference. My husband treated me to them for Christmas a few years ago. People who work outside quite a lot use them and I can even wear them without wellie socks. It might be weird to say, but they really have changed my life!

“I can go out and do the gardening, go for walks, all without any pain!”

Ali Horsfall

Senior Health Writer Ali Horsfall has almost 15 years experience as a journalist and has written for national print titles and women’s lifestyle brands including woman&home, Woman, Woman's Own, BBC magazines, Mothercare, Grazia and The Independent. She currently specialises in health and fitness content and loves sharing the best expert advice on staying well.