Our grateful thanks to the charity SRUK for the use of the information below and for their contribution to our on-air report. You can hear it again via the radio player located at the bottom of this page.
Raynaud's phenomenon is a common disorder in which the small blood vessels in the extremities are over-sensitive to changes in temperature. It affects between 3-20% of the adult population worldwide and there may be as many as ten million sufferers in the UK. Raynaud's is most commonly found in females and approximately 10% of women in the UK suffer from Raynaud's to some degree. The condition can affect children, adolescents and adults. Many sufferers have never seen a doctor as they are unaware that their condition has a name or that there is anything that can be done to help. Raynaud's is not, as 36% of respondents in a recent poll of 2000 people conducted on behalf of SRUK believe, contagious!
The symptoms with Raynaud's the blood supply to the extremities, usually the fingers and toes but sometimes also the ears and nose, is interrupted. During an attack they become first white and dead looking. They may then turn blue and finally red and burning when the blood flow is restored. There may be considerable pain, numbness or tingling. These symptoms are due to an intermittent lack of blood in the affected parts when the arteries normally supplying them spasmodically contract. An attack will often be triggered by touching cold objects or exposure to cold of any kind. Emotions, such as anxiety, may also play a part as can smoking.
Whether isolated (primary Raynaud's Phenomenon) or secondary to another condition, may cause severe pain, discomfort and problems with hand function. For the vast majority of sufferers, Raynaud's is a benign primary condition which may interfere with daily activities but does not cause any long term damage to the extremities.
Anyone of any age can develop Primary Raynaud's which occurs spontaneously without any underlying condition being present. It can be hereditary in which case it is usually fairly mild.
Secondary Raynaud's is less common and is associated with underlying diseases such as scleroderma (a rare, chronic disease of the immune system, blood vessels and connective tissue. 2.5 million people worldwide have scleroderma, and in the UK there are 12,000 people diagnosed), systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. When associated with scleroderma, patients will often suffer more acute symptoms and in severe cases may develop persistent finger ulcers and infection which in very extreme cases may become gangrenous.
Treatments for Raynaud's depends on the severity of the condition. For those with a mild condition, practical measures such as using hand warmers, thermal gloves and hats help to alleviate symptoms. Patients should be advised that an even, ambient temperature is as important as keeping warm because often it is not the absolute temperature, but a small change in the ambient environment, which precipitates an attack. Cold draughty places should therefore be avoided where possible.
If the condition is severe the GP can advise on the different types of drugs available, which include vasodilators - drugs which open up the small blood vessels. Patients often have to try several before they find one that works. Many people with Raynaud's try natural products such as vitamins, fish oil, evening primrose oil, gingko biloba and ginger. These simple measures seem to help some patients and are popular, as they can be purchased without prescriptions.
People who work with vibratory tools are prone to Raynaud's and this appears to be permanent even when the work is stopped. This condition, known as Vibration Induced White Finger or Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is recognised as an industrial disease eligible for compensation.
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