Raynaud’s disease is a syndrome where the small blood vessels in the extremities of the patient are over-sensitive to changes in temperature. It usually involves the fingers and toes, but can also affect the ears, nose and lips. Changes in temperature, as well as anxiety or stress, can bring on a Raynaud’s attack where the blood vessels in the affected area go into a temporary spasm, blocking the flow of blood. This causes the extremities to change colour to white, then blue and eventually red, as blood flow returns. The attack can be uncomfortable, even painful and can last from a few minutes to several hours.
Raynaud’s is thought to affect about 10 million people in the UK and is slightly more common in women. The onset of Raynaud’s usually begins between the ages of 20 and 40, but it can affect anyone of any age, from children to adults. February is Raynaud’s Awareness Month.
There are two types of Raynaud’s: Primary Raynaud’s and Secondary Raynaud’s. Primary Raynaud’s is when the condition develops by itself. This is the most common type and is usually mild and manageable. Secondary Raynaud’s is caused by another health condition, usually one which causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue (autoimmune conditions), such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Secondary Raynaud’s requires close monitoring and treatment as blood supply can be severely restricted, increasing the risk of complications such as ulcers and scarring.
If you think you might have Raynaud’s speak to your GP. Examination of your symptoms and a blood test will establish if you have Raynaud’s and whether it is the primary or secondary form of the condition.
You can usually treat Raynaud’s yourself, although in some cases your GP may prescribe vasodilator medication if your condition is getting worse. These drugs work by opening up or relaxing the blood vessels and so help blood flow.
Self-help measures include increasing exercise levels (to help improve circulation), eating a healthy balance diet, keeping your whole body warm, especially your hands and feet, minimising your stress levels and quitting smoking.
Richard Dunn is a community pharmacist with Gordons Chemists.