If you’re spending the winter holidays somewhere cold, you need to know how to protect your feet. That’s especially true if you’ve ever noticed them becoming discolored, numb, or painful. While these symptoms are expected if a person is exposed to cold conditions for a long time, in a person who is only exposed to cold briefly, they may be a sign of Raynaud’s disease.
Raynaud’s disease is a disorder in which the smooth muscles surrounding the arteries contract too much for blood to pass. Such “vasospasms” can happen in the feet, hands, face, and nipples. Although it is usually more of an annoyance than a threat, it can cause ulcers, and the worst cases of Raynaud’s result in amputation. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Raynaud’s is a three-color change in the affected body parts. The tissues first turn white after being exposed to cold, and then turn blue. When blood flow is restored, there will often be an excessive amount, causing the tissues to appear red. It is commonly at this point that they would throb and tingle painfully. Raynaud’s disease won’t always cause tissues to cycle through every color; blue is sometimes skipped. A spasm can last for a time between minutes and hours, and it often takes about fifteen minutes after it ends for circulation to normalize.
Cold is the most common trigger for a vasospasm, but stress is also believed to play a role, and smoking puts people at greater risk. Raynaud’s disease is more common in women and affects about 5% of the global population. This number is inclusive of Raynaud’s phenomenon, in which there is another underlying disease which results in vasospasms. Some common examples of these are inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Buerger’s disease. Other causes include Sjögren’s syndrome, scleroderma, lupus, and diseases and medications which cause high blood pressure. (Chemicals used in the manufacturing of PVC are also associated with Raynaud’s phenomenon, but are not usually exposed to the patient’s feet.) Raynaud’s disease is more common in young people, while Raynaud’s phenomenon is usually seen in people over forty.
For severe cases, there are medications which can open up the blood vessels. A doctor will want to thoroughly examine a patient in order to determine whether any of the diseases associated with Raynaud’s phenomenon are present. However, in most cases, patients are advised to take precautions to keep themselves warm, including by avoiding touching chilled glasses and standing in front of open refrigerators. It is a good idea to wear thick, insulated socks, but they have to be changed and washed frequently. When vasospasms are triggered by stress, it is a good idea to practice relaxation techniques, and consultation with a psychologist may be called for. One other thing to keep in mind if a person with Raynaud’s is spending winter somewhere warm is that air conditioning may also trigger vasospasms.