Could there be more to your frozen fingers and tender toes?

17 February 2021

In the depths of a British winter – when we are standing at a bus stop, waiting at the school gates or standing on the touchlines – we may notice a change in the colour of our fingertips, but what if something other than the climate is to blame?

Raynaud’s phenomenon (not to be confused with Raynaud’s disease where the cause is unknown) is a common condition affecting the blood supply to the ends of the body, most often our fingers and toes but also ears, noses and nipples. It is caused by over-sensitive blood vessels reacting to cold temperatures and becoming narrower than usual, significantly restricting the blood flow. This causes the affected area to change colour to white, blue and then red as the blood flow returns. It can also cause uncomfortable numbness, pain, and pins and needles in the area affected.

What causes Raynaud’s phenomenon?

Man with hand pain holding his fingers

A common assumption is that Raynaud’s is caused by a cold environment, but researchers believe the condition is caused by stress and anxiety and aggravated by the cold. It’s also likely to be hereditary. Primary Raynaud’s is a stand-alone condition where the causes are unknown. The good news is that it is not a threat to your health and often the symptoms will just disappear.

Living with Raynaud’s phenomenon can be frustrating as it becomes difficult to move your fingers; as anyone with the condition who works outside who handles small objects such as change will tell you! But those with Raynaud’s often go for long periods without any symptoms, and sometimes the condition goes away altogether.
Raynaud’s phenomenon can appear as a secondary condition to an autoimmune disease such as Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, or certain types of cancer. It has also been noted as a side effect of some medicines including HRT and beta blockers.

Despite being a common condition only 4% of people are able to identify the symptoms of Raynaud’s (SRUK charity).

Living with Raynaud’s phenomenon

A diagnosis of Raynaud’s follows a consultation with your GP and a blood test. If your GP suspects secondary Raynaud’s, you may be referred on to a specialist or be advised to review medication. Those diagnosed with the condition can help their symptoms by:

  • Keeping their whole body warm in the winter
  • Covering the areas affected with gloves and socks.
  • Stopping smoking has also shown to help symptoms
  • Exercise to improve the circulation and can help reduce stress
  • NHS England also suggest avoiding coffee, tea and cola as stimulants may also cause anxiety.