A Raynaud’s sufferer shares her tips on staying warm.
You’re holding an icy drink and suddenly your fingers go numb and white. Everyone gets cold hands and feet sometimes—spend a little too long on the slopes and you know the feeling. It’s normal for the body to constrict small blood vessels as a protective response (to conserve heat), but for the estimated 28 million Americans who have a condition called Raynaud’s, myself included, the reaction to cold is more extreme.
With Raynaud's, over-sensitive nerves make blood vessels constrict at even the slightest chill. For me, just reaching into a freezer can trigger the response: My fingers first blanche, then turn blue, red, or a mottled mix of both. I feel a tingling sensation as my body heats back up; it takes 5-10 minutes for normal skin color to return.
While Raynaud’s can develop as early as age 15, the condition tends to affect more women than men. “We think estrogen may influence vascular reactivity to cold,” says Fredrick Wigley, MD, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Genes may also play a role: Thirty percent of sufferers’ relatives also develop the disorder and it may be a symptom of an autoimmune issue. Surprisingly, fitness is not a factor. Even those in elite shape—like my triathlete friend—are susceptible to Raynaud’s.
Although there’s no cure, there are coping strategies to fight the chill. I now bring gloves to the grocery store and buy ski supply hand warmers in bulk (to stuff into mittens when I go for a cold-weather run—mittens are better than gloves for heat circulation). To accommodate a double-layer of socks (wool beats cotton), I’ll buy boots a half size larger. There are also more high-tech options like Wristies heated fingerless gloves, smartphone-controlled heated insoles, and silver-lined socks that supposedly increase circulation.
Even with all the layers and tricks, I’ll still get cold sometimes (um, often). Quick remedies include running fingers or toes under warm water, wrapping hands around a mug of hot tea, or wind-milling arms to get blood back into the fingers. Doctors occasionally prescribe calcium channel blockers, antidepressants, and vasodilators to open blood vessels. Some doctors even suggest trying Cialis or Viagra to increase blood flow to “other” extremities. But because many of these medications lower blood pressure, anyone with low pressure (like me) is not a candidate. The newest treatment (still in the early stages but showing success) is Botox: Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Cold Hand Clinic are injecting Botox to relax constricted vessels in the hands and keep them open.
On the more holistic front, Andrew Weil, MD recommends supplementing diets with 100 mg of vitamin B3 twice a day (to help dilate vessels) and 120-240 mg of ginkgo biloba twice a day (to increase circulation). He also suggests trying biofeedback to train the brain into signaling the body to allow blood flow into fingers and toes.
In other words, think warm thoughts.