Raynaud’s Awareness Month – what it is and what can be done!

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So some of you (probably most of you!) might not be aware that February is Raynaud’s awareness month in the UK. Never heard of it? Well look no further as I take a dive into this surprisingly common disorder that affects 1 in 6 people in the UK, most of these being women, including myself (Madi).

What on earth is it?

In people with Raynaud’s, the small blood vessels in hands and feet are over-sensitive to changes in temperature or stress. This causes what’s called a Raynaud’s attack where the fingers change colour to white, blue, purple or red. Raynaud’s symptoms generally affect the fingers and toes, but all extremities can be involved, including the ears, nose, lips, tongue and nipples. Those with Raynaud’s can also suffer from a range of symptoms:

  • Joint stiffness and pain
  • Sores and ulcers
  • Cold, numbness, tingling in hands and/or feet
  • Skin discolouration (red, purple, white, blue)
  • Dry, cracked skin

Most people with Raynaud’s symptoms have “Primary Raynaud’s phenomenon” which although a pain in the ass shouldn’t cause any lasting damage. Primary Raynaud’s often starts to become apparent during adolescence. However, a small number of people (roughly 1 in 100) with Raynaud’s have an underlying condition; this is called “Secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon”. This can potentially be more serious and there are tests available to help identify people who might have secondary Raynaud’s.

Why it’s worth writing about…

As mentioned before I have diagnosed Raynaud’s and just wanted to share a bit of info about this strange and annoying condition. One of the worst attacks I had left me literally crying in agony as my hands couldn’t cope with the extreme cold I suddenly found myself in. In cold conditions where those without Raynaud’s would find themselves quite comfortable I often end up with numb, stiff fingers and then awful pain as the blood eventually rushes back to my hands as they warm up. Every Winter means having to continually worry about my hands and endless pre-planning to ensure I have gloves with me wherever I go! However, I mostly get around by bike and even wearing thick gloves means that my hands don’t escape the cold when I’m out.

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One side effect I get each Winter is chilblains which are sore, itchy, red patches that result from changes in temperature – see the above sexy picture. Not so pleasant to look at they’re pretty uncomfortable too; just a few weeks ago I had so many that my fingers swole up to the point I couldn’t get my rings off anymore. Not fun.

What can be done about it..?

At the moment there is no cure. The Raynaud’s awareness charity SRUK gives the following tips to sufferers:

  • Avoid cold weather (this isn’t exactly going to be possible if you live in the UK)
  • Wrap up and keep warm
  • Relax and pace yourself
  • Stop smoking
  • Gentle exercise and avoid tight clothing that restricts blood flow

In more severe cases drugs can be prescribed. I’ve been prescribed a blood pressure lowering drug myself, which acts to open up the blood vessels and hopefully allow better blood flow to hands and feet. I’ve even heard reports of Viagra being used as a treatment, one to look out for now it’s off prescription!

Although Botox is typically known for its age-fighting affects it has many other uses. (Did you know it was originally used to treat strabismus, where a defect in the muscles of the eyes causes misalignment?) There is some indication that it can treat those with Raynaud’s by blocking blood vessel spasms (meaning blood flow isn’t restricted) and also pain nerves.

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Can nutrition help?

As a nutritionist I was curious to see whether there has been much (or any!) research into whether diet can impact on Raynaud’s. As I suspected there is much closer to the ‘none’ side. However, there seems to be some anecdotal evidence for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant containing foods (mostly fruit and veg) and also ginger, chilli and garlic. providing benefits. Incorporating these foods into any diet is a good move but if you have Raynaud’s it won’t hurt to add some more in and see what happens.

Protein is also important to help with growth and repair if you suffer from ulcers or chilblains. Having a variety of different protein sources can also help you get a source of other nutrients too (e.g. pulses, eggs, dairy, meat, fish, nuts and seeds). Same goes for vitamins involved in maintenance of skin health, such as vitamin C, so make sure to eat a range of fruit and veg.

A study from 1989 with 32 Raynaud’s sufferers looked at the effect of fish oil supplements (containing essential long-chain omega-3s) on length of time to an attack during a cold challenge. Although in this study there were beneficial effects on delaying onset of an attack this was one small study and so doesn’t really tell us that much. However, we do know that consuming long-chain omega-3s is beneficial for a host of other reasons so it might not be a bad idea to eat foods containing them (oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds etc) or take a supplement anyway.

Bottom line

Be kind to people when they say they are cold or have cold hands and feet, it can be so painful if things progress to a Raynaud’s attack. If you’re reading this and think you have a good chance of having the condition (i.e. cold hands and feet that are often strange colours + any of the above symptoms) go get checked out! A simple blood test later and you can be reassured either way that you don’t have anything serious or be directed for further help. And remember, stay warm everyone.

“If the World seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it” – Lucy Larcom

For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:

Raynaud’s Association – https://www.raynauds.org

Scleroderma & Raynaud’s UK – https://www.sruk.co.uk/

Ralph A. Digiacomo et al. (1989). Fish-oil dietary supplementation in patients with Raynaud’s phenomenon: A double-blind, controlled, prospective study. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/0002-9343(89)90261-1

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