If Your Hands Are Always Freezing, This Might Be Why

Have fingers or toes that turn shades of red, white, and blue? It's not Patriotism—you could have Raynaud's syndrome.

Photo: Martin Novak/Getty Images

Often, when I pull off my gloves or my socks, I look down at my hands and notice a few of my fingers or toes are white—not just pale, but ghostly and completely absent of color.

They don't hurt, but they do feel numb, making it difficult to hammer out a text or type on my laptop until they come back to life.

I live in Chicago where the winters are rough and the temperatures low, but getting thicker gloves and socks doesn't fix the problem. In fact, the same whitening and tingling have occurred when I've walked home from a Cubs game in summer, boarded any airplane, held a can of LaCroix or even just grabbed a bag of frozen broccoli at the grocery store.

After much speculation and at-home trial-and-error, I saw my doctor who confirmed that I have a condition called Raynaud's syndrome, which affects the blood vessels in your extremities making them hypersensitive to fluctuating temperatures. Though it sounded somewhat alarming, I was relieved to learn my complaints about cold fingers and toes were at least justified.

If you think you might be dealing with more than just typically chilly digits, here's what I learned about Raynaud's syndrome that might also help you:

What is Raynaud's syndrome?

Raynaud's disease or Raynaud's syndrome is a vascular condition that causes the smaller arteries that supply blood to your skin to narrow, which limits blood circulation to the affected areas.

It affects between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. adult population and is more common in women than men, says Maureen D. Mayes, M.D., a rheumatologist at UT Health in Houston, who sits on the medical advisory board for Raynaud's Association.

What are the symptoms of Raynaud's syndrome?

The condition is characterized by fairly dramatic color changes in your extremities, always on the palm side of your fingers or underside of your toes. "This is a lack of blood supply, so there is a pale appearance of the finger—it could be from the crease to the joint, but sometimes it's the entire digit to the base of the finger," says Dr. Mayes. "The fingers can turn bluish or purple as they warm up again, then as the blood comes back, can be painful and turn red or ruddy."

This tri-coloration is a key factor in distinguishing and diagnosing Raynaud's syndrome—it's different than your hands just feeling cold or getting a bluish tone under your nails, which is a normal reaction to cold exposure for many people.

What causes Raynaud's syndrome?

Doctors aren't totally sure why this extreme reaction happens to some people, but experts do know that it isn't necessarily confined to people in colder climates. Dr. Mayes says she sees as many cases of Raynaud's in Texas as she did in her former state of Michigan.

"No one knows why it happens, but there is an exaggerated response in the blood vessels of some patients," says Ashima Makol, M.D., a rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "Certain triggers like cold exposure, or anxiety and stress, cause the blood vessels to go into spasms and temporarily limit blood supply."

What's more, there are two types of the disorder. Primary Raynaud's syndrome, which usually shows up in early adulthood through the mid-30s, is pretty easy to self-diagnose if you're experiencing these discoloration symptoms but are otherwise healthy, says Dr. Makol. Secondary Raynaud's syndrome, however, is more serious. This variation typically presents itself after age 40 and may only affect one side of your body. If this happens, alert your doctor, as in rare cases, the Raynaud's can actually signal another underlying medical condition, such as lupus or scleroderma, says Dr. Makol.

Can you prevent or treat Raynaud's syndrome?

If you think you have Raynaud's, maintaining core body temperature is key, says Dr. Mayes. (BTW, here's how to stay warm in your freezing-cold office). Layer up with an extra sweater, jacket, or scarf rather than relying on thicker gloves or socks alone to prevent the problem (or, if you're at home, try a weighted blanket). Healthy lifestyle habits such as not smoking and regular exercise may help prevent symptoms as well, says Dr. Makol. To help bring your extremities back to life if you do experience a flare up, soak your hands in warm water, she adds.

For more serious cases, doctors may prescribe calcium channel blockers, which are more often used to treat high blood pressure or hypertension. These meds can improve vascular flow to your hands and feet, but can cause low blood pressure and headaches among other side effects, says Dr. Makol.

Overall, it's better to learn what triggers your Raynaud's and avoid those things to manage your symptoms before they strike.