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Raynaud's phenomenon

Alternative Names
Raynaud's syndrome, Raynaud's disease, Raynaud's

People with Raynaud's phenomenon have repeating episodes of constriction, or tightening, of the blood vessels called arteries. The constriction of the arteries interrupts the blood flow to the area. Raynaud's phenomenon usually affects the tips of the fingers and toes, but may also occur in the nose and ears.

What is going on in the body?
Sometimes, the interruptions in blood flow to the extremities can be traced to an underlying disease or certain medications. During an attack, little or no blood flow reaches affected areas, which become cold and pale.

Attacks may last a few minutes or as long as several hours. They may be mild or severe. Occasionally, the tissue of the fingers can die or a sore on the skin may occur from complete blockage of a blood vessel.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Raynaud's phenomenon may cause:
  • changes in skin colour. Often, the skin pales or becomes bluish when arteries constrict. When the arteries relax, the skin may flush and redden before its colour returns to normal.
  • numbness and tingling
  • swelling
  • pain that is often described as throbbing
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Raynaud's phenomenon may have no obvious cause. Often, though, it is linked to underlying health problems and other factors, including:
  • autoimmune disorders, such as systemic lupus erythematosus and scleroderma, that cause the immune system to attack a person's own body
  • certain medications, such as ergotamine or methysergide
  • repeated injury or vibrations
Strong emotions or exposure to cold often trigger an attack of Raynaud's phenomenon. This condition is more common among women and smokers.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
Often, this health problem cannot be prevented. Avoiding smoking and exposure to cold may reduce a person's risk for it.

How is the condition diagnosed?
Typically, a physical examination of the affected area and a person's report of symptoms allow a doctor to diagnose this condition. Blood flow studies can also be performed using certain imaging techniques, such as ultrasound.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Severe attacks can cause:
  • loss of the fingers or toes
  • open sores
  • skin changes or nail deformities
What are the risks to others?
Raynaud's phenomenon is not contagious, so there are no risks to others.

What are the treatments for the condition?
The underlying disease can be treated to help lessen the number of attacks. It may also help if a person:
  • avoids cold weather
  • protects the affected area from cold
  • quits smoking
  • avoids drugs known to cause or worsen Raynaud's phenomenon
  • reduces stress and uses techniques such as biofeedback. Biofeedback is a procedure in which a person learns to control some of the normal processes of the body that are normally controlled without a person even realising it.
Certain medications, such as calcium-channel blockers, can help keep the arteries from constricting tightly. If exposure to cold triggers an attack, running warm water over the fingers may help stop the attack.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Calcium-channel blockers can lower blood pressure. They also have other possible side effects, such as allergic reactions and swelling in the lower legs. People taking these drugs should discuss the side effects with their doctor.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
The course of Raynaud's phenomenon is often unpredictable. Some people require treatment for many years. If the condition is well controlled or goes away, a person can return to normal activities.

Author: Adam Brochert, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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