If you suffer with blue fingers in the winter, then you will know how difficult living with Raynaud's disease (also known as Raynaud's phenomenon) can be. While I love frosty mornings, snow and pretty icicles in one way, I also dread the pain that the winter months bring with them. Thankfully I have had some helpful treatments, and use certain products that make living with Raynaud's a little easier and let me enjoy the holiday season much more than I used to.
I was diagnosed with Raynaud's when I was about 8 years old. My fingers had been going blue, sometimes white, for a few months. Then I remember sitting with a friend in my back garden on a summer's day holding a cold drink. My fingers were really painful so I looked down at my hand and they had turned blue. For some reason, I wasn't that fussed by my blue fingers, but my mum was worried and took my to the doctors. He diagnosed Raynaud's from my symptoms and then referred me on to a rheumatology clinic, where I still get treatment to this day.
What is Raynaud's disease?
Raynaud's is a condition that affects your circulation, and when you are cold, stressed or anxious your fingers and toes change colour (NHS). It can also affect ears, lips, nipples and nose, although that is more rare.
As the Mayo Clinic describes, in Raynaud's smaller arteries that supply blood to your skin narrow, limiting blood supply to affected areas. This causes the colour change that we are familiar with. More women than men experience Raynauds, and my doctors suggest that people living with other chronic illness conditions such as fibromyalgia and dysautonomia, both of which I have, seem to be more prone to the condition.
If you suspect you have Raynaud's then the best thing to do is to talk with your primary care doctor. They may be able to diagnose you (or not) on the spot. They may also refer you on to a specialist doctor, which will likely be a rheumatologist for tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other conditions.
These could include:
- blood tests
- water test, where you put your hands in cold water and thermography shows the temperature response
- nail fold capillaroscopy, where the skin at the base of the fingernail is examined under a microscope
- other tests the doctor feels are appropriate
My day to day symptoms of Raynauds
With Raynaud's you experience pain, numbness and pins and needles in the affected area, as well as the colour change. Personally my fingers tend to go straight to being blue but are sometimes white first. Strangely, my toes like to go straight to being white and don't often go blue. When I warm back up the blood returns to my fingers and toes, which causes pain, throbbing and a hot feeling.
In the summer there are definitely triggers that will set off my blue fingers. Getting something out of the fridge, or holding an iced drink are likely going to set off an attack. When dealing with winter and chronic illness it feels as though everything will affect my circulation and lead to unhappy fingers and toes. While I have the heating on at home I can still get an attack, and sometimes have no idea what sets it off.
Going outside in the cold is difficult, but I have a lot of strategies to help as I talk about below. I actually find that dry cold is easier than damp cold. A wet rainy day seems to make the pain worse when outside, and I struggle more to get the blood flowing again and often resort to putting my hands in warm water (make sure it's not too hot if you try that!).
Over the years I have tried many different treatments for my Raynaud's. I took various vasodilators such as nifedipine, which work to open blood vessels, as well as calcium channel blockers such as diltiazem which do the same.
A few of these drugs did help but I found the side-effects a little difficult. Vasodilators tend to lower blood pressure and mine is already low. I got light-headed and felt a little dizzy at times so it was decided not to pursue this line of treatment. I actually got diagnosed with dysautonomia many years later, which explains the issue with my low blood pressure.
More recently I have tried Botox for Raynaud's. It's a new treatment that happens to be going through trials at my hospital. The treatment involves injections of Botox between each finger and the thumbs. I'm not going to pretend that it isn't painful, and I find it more painful than having Botox for my migraine. So far it seems to have helped in my left hand, but not my right hand. Who knows why that is!
There are lots of natural treatments for Raynaud's that you can try and I think I have used, or continue to use, most of them over the years. Some are personally more helpful to me than others, but we are all different so it's worth a try to see if you can warm up those cold hands and feet!
Please consult with your doctor before taking any new supplements.
- Ginkgo biloba. This is a herbal treatment, which I have used for years on and off. The Scleroderma and Raynauds UK society (SRUK) describe that 'some people find that this produces a significant reduction in their Raynaud's symptoms'. I use the Solgar ginkgo biloba as it is a standardised formula.
- Fish oils or evening primrose oil. The active ingredient found in these supplements is gamolenic acid (GLA) and you need to take approximately 320mg per day. The SRUK describes that many people find GLA to be effective, but it may take 8 weeks to notice a benefit.
- Personally I used to take the Solgar evening primrose oil until I had to stop as it is contra-indicated with another medication and found it to be very helpful. Solgar also does a specific GLA softgel capsule if you prefer.
- Ginger supplements and fresh ginger. The SRUK suggest a dose of 2000-4000mg a day of ginger. My specialist nurse also recommends this supplement, and it is traditionally a really warming food. I also like to drink ginger tea on a cold winter's day. Solgar standardised ginger is a good brand.
- Acupuncture. Personally I haven't tried acupuncture for Raynaud's, but it is recommended by some doctors so have a chat with your rheumatologist as to whether they feel it would be suitable for you.
It is likely the case that you will have to take a few of these tablets per day to reach the recommended dose.
Other ideas and products to help you stay warm
Wrapping up warm is definitely a must when you are living with Raynauds. I am all about hats, gloves and scarves in the winter time, and always carry a cardigan in the summer in case the temperature dips later in the day. At home you will find me in fur-lined Ugg boots all the time!
I've also found some products that really help me out:
- Hand warmers. My number one tip is to use hand warmers! These are little packets that you put into your gloves to keep your hands warm. I use the Hot Hands hand warmers and love them! Really simple and convenient, they help me out on cold winter days.
- A thermos. This may sound a little strange, but having a warm drink when it's cold can help you feel a bit more cosy and it warms me up. I have a few different ones but the Thermos travel tumbler is really good. Take hot tea, coffee or even soup with you when you're out and about!
- Gloves with a thinsulate lining. A game-changer! So helpful to keep cold fingers warm in the cold. There are lots of different pairs available such as these Bruceriver ladies wool gloves with thinsulate lining. I've got my whole family wearing this style of glove!
- Exercise. As well as helpful treatments, natural therapies and wrapping up warm, I also find that exercise really helps with my symptoms. It gets the blood flowing in all the right places!
Hope those ideas help you with living with Raynaud's disease, and that you can stay cosy and warm as much as possible this winter. Let me know in the comments if you have any other top tips for keeping warm!
Please follow the advice of your doctor as to all medical treatments, supplements, and dietary choices, as set out in my disclaimer. I am not a medical professional, and this post, as well as all other posts on this blog, are for informational purposes only.