What is Raynaud's?

Types of Raynaud's

What causes Raynaud's?

How is Raynaud's diagnosed?

What is Raynaud's?

Raynaud’s Disease or Raynaud’s Phenomenon, is a condition which affects the extremities. Raynaud's mainly affects the fingers and toes but it can sometimes affect the ears and on rare occasions the nose, chin or cheeks too. 

During an incidence of the condition, the blood supply to these parts of the body becomes interrupted as the arteries that normally supply them spasm and contract. The affected parts may feel numb, or tingle slightly, and often feel extremely painful as the blood returns.

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Types of Raynaud's

There are two types of Raynaud's. It can either be:

  • Primary Raynaud's: when the condition develops by itself (this is the most common type)
  • Secondary Raynaud's: when it develops in association with another health condition

The causes of primary Raynaud's are unclear. However 1 in 10 people with primary Raynaud's will go on to develop a condition associated with secondary Raynaud's such as lupus.

Most cases of secondary Raynaud's are associated with autoimmune conditions, such as:

  • rheumatoid arthritis: when the immune system attacks the joints causing pain and swelling
  • lupus: when the immune system attacks many different parts of the body causing a range of symptoms, such as tiredness, joint pain and skin rashes

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What causes Raynaud's?

When your body is exposed to cold temperatures, the extremities of your body, such as your fingers and toes, lose heat. This is because the small blood vessels under the skin become narrower, slowing down the blood supply that helps to preserve your body's core temperature.

For those living with Raynaud's, the small blood vessels in the fingers and toes are more sensitive than usual to cold temperatures. This sensitivity causes the blood vessels to spasm, narrowing them still further much, allowing much less blood to flow through them.

For those living with Raynaud's their numb and/or painful symptoms can be triggered by mildly cool weather, getting something out of the freezer or running your hands under a cold tap. Stress or anxiety can also act as a trigger for these symptoms. 

Smoking can constrict blood vessels, therefore someone living with Raynaud's can trigger their symptoms through smoking as well.

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How is Raynaud's diagnosed?

To diagnose Raynaud's your doctor may place your hands in cold water or cool air to see the symptoms of Raynaud's manifest themselves. It can be difficult to observe or reproduce the symptoms at an appointment, so a recording or photographs of an attack can be good evidence to show the doctor.

While Raynaud's can normally be diagnosed by studying your symptoms further, testing is usually recommended to find out whether you have primary or secondary Raynaud's.

Secondary Raynaud's may require more treatment and in some cases a referral to a specialist.

The first step is usually to check if you have the following features as these would suggest that you have secondary Raynaud's:

  • your symptoms only started when you were older than 30 years of age - most cases of primary Raynaud's begin between the ages of 20 to 30, so the onset of symptoms after this time suggests that it may be secondary Raynaud's
  • you are experiencing severe pain during an attack of Raynaud's
  • only one side of your body is affected

Your GP may also check the tiny blood vessels, known as capillaries, that can be found at the the base of where your nail meets the finger. These capillaries are commonly larger than normal in people with secondary Raynaud's, and look like red pen marks.

Depending on these factors your GP may then refer you for further blood tests looking at infection, inflammation markers or antibody detection.

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