October is the start of a challenging time for those who are particularly sensitive to cold temperatures due to seasonal change. This is why the Raynaud’s Association has established October as the Raynaud’s Awareness Month.
The occasion is a time to raise awareness about this painful medical condition that afflicts an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population – and four out of five of them are women.
Raynaud’s disease (also known as Raynaud’s syndrome) is characterized by an extreme sensitivity to cold temperatures, which causes numbness or pain as the tiny arteries that supply blood to the extremities shrink (vasospasms) – a reaction that can also be caused by stress. The cause of Raynaud’s is still unknown, and there are currently no available treatments or a cure for the disease.
For “Frosties” – a term used to refer to people who have difficulties withstanding cold temperatures – fall and winter are tough seasons to endure. This time of the year usually comes with tasks like scraping icy windshields or shoveling sidewalks, or with activities like waiting outside for the bus or the train, watching your children play outdoor sports, or raking the leaves in your yard.
For people with Raynaud’s, being exposed to these activities may cause considerable discomfort and painful spasms that can last for hours at a time.
“Bundling yourself up with heavy clothes is great, but try using a cellphone or opening a door with a key when you have heavy gloves on,” Lynn Wunderman, founder and chair of the Raynaud’s Association, said in a press release. “You have to take them off. It’s no wonder why so many Frosties are feeling blue from the cold.”
Unfortunately, the warmer seasons aren’t necessarily easier, either – air conditioned spaces, as well as simply holding a cold glass or having to take something out of the freezer, can also trigger a painful spasm anytime. Often fingertips turn blue or white for a while, and then red after recovery. Symptoms vary according to each individual.
A simple blood test – the antinuclear antibody test (ANA) – can determine if a patient has Raynaud’s primary or secondary to an inflammatory disease.
According to the Raynaud’s Association, 90 percent of Raynaud’s patients do not seek treatment for their disorder.
“They often brush it off by saying they have poor circulation,” Wunderman said. “Well, that’s true, but Raynaud’s could be an indication of a serious and disabling underlying disease such as scleroderma or lupus. It may take years for the other disease signs to show up, so follow-up with your doctor is important.”
Spasms can be eased by drug treatments – like calcium channel blockers – that help to reduce the formation of digital ulcers, which occur in more severe cases. Drugs that increase blood flow, like those used to manage erectile dysfunction, may also provide relief.
Other non-medical practices, such as biofeedback, tai chi, or yoga, may also help to relieve spasms, since they aim to increase blood flow, even though studies have not been conclusive on this matter.
“At this point, much of the treatment for Raynaud’s is geared toward avoiding cold or stress,” Wunderman said. “Obviously, that’s not always practical.”
The Raynaud’s Association provides several resources for patients, including a comprehensive guide called “The Cold Facts on Raynaud’s (and Strategies for a Warmer Life),” patient discussion forums, product reviews, as well as informational videos, like the one below: