Raynaud Disease

Your healthcare provider has told you that you have Raynaud disease. It is also called Raynaud phenomenon or Raynaud syndrome. There is no cure for Raynaud disease, but you can manage it to help prevent attacks.

Hand and foot showing discolored tips of fingers and toes. Raynaud often affects fingers and toes.

What are the symptoms of Raynaud disease?

A Raynaud disease attack is often triggered by cold or stress. During an attack, blood vessels suddenly narrow (called vasospasm).  This most often happens in fingers and toes. In rare cases, the nose, ears, or even tongue are affected. Narrowed blood vessels reduce the blood supply to the area. The area then turns white, then blue. The area may feel numb or painful. As the attack passes, the blood vessels open. The affected area may turn bright red as it warms up, then returns to normal color.

What is the cause of Raynaud disease?

With Raynaud disease, it is believed that blood vessels in the affected areas overrespond to certain triggers, such as cold. This makes them narrow (called vasospasm) much more than in people without the disease. What causes the blood vessels to react so strongly to certain triggers is unknown. In between attacks, the blood vessels are normal and healthy. Attacks don’t permanently damage the blood vessels, but may thicken the artery walls. 

In some cases, Raynaud disease happens along with another disease or condition. This is often a connective tissue disorder, such as lupus, scleroderma, or rheumatoid arthritis. This is called secondary Raynaud disease (as opposed to primary Raynaud disease discussed above) and may be more severe. If this is the case for you, you and your healthcare provider can discuss treatment for the underlying condition.

What are the risk factors?

Risk factors for Raynaud disease include:

  • Women are more likely to get Raynaud disease than men.

  • Younger individuals are at higher risk, usually ages 15 to 30.

  • Living in colder climates increases risk.

  • Having a family member with Raynaud disease increases one's risk.

  • Underlying rheumatoid conditions may increase one's risk. 

What are possible triggers?

Triggers for Raynaud disease include: 

  • Cold

  • Stress

  • Caffeine

  • Smoking

  • Repetitive movements

  • Certain medicines, such as beta-blockers, migraine medicine, birth control pills and others

  • Injury

How is Raynaud disease diagnosed?

Your description of your symptoms, a health history, and a physical exam are often enough for a diagnosis. Blood tests and other tests may be done to see if any underlying conditions are present and rule out other problems.

How is Raynaud disease treated?

There is no cure for Raynaud disease. But you can control symptoms and reduce the number and severity of attacks. For most people, avoiding triggers is enough to limit attacks. Your healthcare provider may suggest the following:

  • Take precautions to help prevent your hands and feet from losing circulation. This includes:

    • Dressing warmly in cold weather.

    • Wear gloves or mittens when your hands may become cold, such as when you use the refrigerator or freezer.

    • Avoid stress and caffeine.

    • Exercise regularly. This may reduce the number and severity of attacks. 

    • If you smoke, quitting may improve the condition. This is because smoking causes your blood vessels to narrow and reduces blood flow.

  • Soak your hands or feet in warm (not hot) water. Do this at the first sign of attack. Keep soaking until your skin color returns to normal.

In some people, symptoms are persistent or troubling. For these cases, other treatments are a choice. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about the following:

  • Prescription medicines that relax and widen blood vessels, such as calcium channel blockers. These may help relieve symptoms.

  • Nerve surgery for severe cases that don’t respond to other treatments. Surgery removes the nerves that surround the blood vessels in the hands and feet. Without nerve stimulation, the blood vessels stay more relaxed. They are less likely to become very narrow due to stimulus. Nerves may be blocked using injections in some cases.

Most cases of Raynaud disease are not cause for concern. The disease doesn’t get worse and isn’t likely to cause any permanent damage. If attacks are severe, very prolonged, or very often, skin damage may result. Controlling attacks can help prevent this.

When to seek medical care

The following problems happen rarely, but they can be serious. Call your healthcare provider right away if you notice any of the following:

  • Infection or sores on the skin

  • A finger or toe turns black

  • The skin breaks open on its own

  • A rash develops

  • A finger or toe joint becomes painful or swollen