The cold weather means many Brits will suffer from freezing fingers or toes during the winter. But for some, the problem extends beyond the usual numbness caused by the chilly climate.

Person touching feet with hands
Pic: Getty

Raynaud's disease, also known as Raynaud's phenomenon, is a common disorder in which the small blood vessels in the body's extremities are over-sensitive to changes in temperature. February is Raynaud's Awareness Month, which aims to provide greater awareness and understanding of the condition.



If you are blighted with extreme numbness, pain or discomfort in your fingers and toes, you could be a sufferer - here's what you need to know.

What causes Raynaud's?
Raynaud's occurs when the blood vessels go into a temporary spasm that blocks the flow of blood. The affected areas usually go white, before turning blue and then red as the blood flow returns. The symptoms can be triggered by cool weather or exposure to cold temperatures, and for some people something as simple as getting food out of the freezer or running the hands under a cold tap can bring on an 'attack'. It is thought stress and anxiety can also bring on the symptoms.

Raynaud's is more common than you might think, with as many as 10 million suffering in the UK. It affects around one in nine women, and one in 12 men, and often begins between the ages of 20 and 30.

There are two types of the disorder - primary, where the condition develops by itself, and secondary, where it is linked to another health condition, usually those associated with the immune system such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Secondary Raynaud's may start at any age.

What are the symptoms?
Sufferers may experience numbness, pins and needles, or pain and discomfort (sometimes severe) in the affected extremities (which could be all fingers or toes or just a few), and the symptoms can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. Occasionally, the earlobes, nose, nipples, tongue or, in very rare cases, the penis can be affected.

Treatment
Where Raynaud's develops in association with another condition, the patient will usually be referred to a specialist in the treatment of the underlying problem.

For the majority of sufferers though, the condition is usually best treated by avoiding the triggers. People with relatively mild symptoms may find that using hand warmers, thermal gloves, socks and hats will go a long way to alleviating the symptoms. UK charity, the Raynaud's and Scleroderma Association, sells such aids via their online shop.

But it is worth remembering that is not just exposure to extreme cold that can bring on an attack - rather it is sudden changes in temperature. Therefore, keeping an even, ambient temperature where possible is important, though cold, draughty places are to be avoided.

Patients are also advised to give up smoking, as this negatively affects circulation, and regular exercise will help to improve circulation and reduce stress, which can bring on an attack. Those for whom stress is a particular trigger may find relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga or even deep breathing exercises may help.

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In severe cases, medication such as nifedipine, which helps to widen the blood vessels and prevent them from going into spasm, may be prescribed. And where the symptoms become so severe that there is a risk of the blood supply to the affected region being lost completely, surgery may be recommended.

For more information about Raynaud's, including possible causes, triggers and treatments, visit www.raynauds.org.uk.

Do you suffer from Raynaud's disease? What helps to alleviate your symptoms? Leave your comments below...