Doctors don't completely understand the cause of Raynaud's attacks, but blood vessels in the hands and feet appear to overreact to cold temperatures or stress.
Blood vessels in spasm
With Raynaud's, arteries to your fingers and toes go into vasospasm when exposed to cold or stress, narrowing your vessels and temporarily limiting blood supply. Over time, these small arteries may thicken slightly, further limiting blood flow.
Cold temperatures are most likely to trigger an attack. Exposure to cold, such as putting your hands in cold water, taking something from a freezer or encountering cold air, is the most likely trigger. For some people, emotional stress can cause an episode of Raynaud's.
Primary vs. secondary Raynaud's
There are two main types of the condition.
- Primary Raynaud's. Also called Raynaud's disease, this most common form isn't the result of an underlying associated medical condition that could provoke vasospasm.
- Secondary Raynaud's. Also called Raynaud's phenomenon, this form is caused by an underlying problem. Although secondary Raynaud's is less common than the primary form, it tends to be more serious. Signs and symptoms of secondary Raynaud's usually appear later in life — around age 40 — than they do for primary Raynaud's.
Causes of secondary Raynaud's include:
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- Connective tissue diseases. Most people who have a rare disease that leads to hardening and scarring of the skin (scleroderma) have Raynaud's. Other diseases that increase the risk of Raynaud's include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren's syndrome.
- Diseases of the arteries. Raynaud's phenomenon can be associated with various diseases that affect arteries, such as the buildup of plaques in blood vessels that feed the heart (atherosclerosis) or a disorder in which the blood vessels of the hands and feet become inflamed (Buerger's disease). A type of high blood pressure that affects the arteries of the lungs (primary pulmonary hypertension) can be linked to Raynaud's.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition involves pressure on a major nerve to your hand (median nerve) producing numbness and pain in the affected hand. The hand may become more susceptible to cold temperatures and episodes of Raynaud's.
- Repetitive action or vibration. Typing, playing piano or doing similar movements for long periods and operating vibrating tools, such as jackhammers, can increase your risk of developing Raynaud's.
- Smoking. Smoking constricts blood vessels and is a potential cause of Raynaud's.
- Injuries. Injuries to the hands or feet, such as wrist fracture, surgery or frostbite, can lead to Raynaud's phenomenon.
- Certain medications. Some drugs — including beta blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure; migraine medications that contain ergotamine or sumatriptan; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder medications; certain chemotherapy agents; and drugs that cause blood vessels to narrow, such as some over-the-counter cold medications — have been linked to Raynaud's.
- Wigley FM. Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of the Raynaud phenomenon. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 20, 2014.
- Questions and answers about Raynaud's phenomenon. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Raynauds_Phenomenon/default.asp. Accessed Aug. 20, 2014.
- Wigley FM. Initial treatment of the Raynaud phenomenon. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 20, 2014.
- Raynaud's disease. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/raynaud/ray_all.html. Accessed Aug. 20, 2014.
- Malenfant D, et al. The efficacy of complementary and alternative medicine in the treatment of Raynaud's phenomenon: A literature review and meta-analysis. Rheumatology. 2009;48:791.
- Natural product effectiveness checker: Raynaud's syndrome. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed Aug. 28, 2014.
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