I often experience numbness in my fingers. When this happens, the skin on my hands turns ghostly white. What causes numb fingers?

Answers from Sheldon G. Sheps, M.D.

You may be describing Raynaud's phenomenon, a condition that causes some parts of your body, such as your fingers and toes, to feel numb and change color. These changes usually result from exposure to cold temperatures, such as being outside on a cold day or even holding a glass of ice water. However, white, numb fingers or toes caused by Raynaud's phenomenon also can be triggered by strong emotions or stress.

Raynaud's phenomenon is a disorder of the blood vessels in the skin. During an attack, these blood vessels narrow, which restricts blood flow to the affected areas.

The exact cause of Raynaud's phenomenon can't always be determined. In such cases, it's referred to as Raynaud's disease. But Raynaud's phenomenon can be associated with:

  • Diseases that affect blood vessels, such as atherosclerosis, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis and Buerger's disease (thromboangiitis obliterans)
  • Repeated trauma from vibrating tools such as a jackhammer

Treatment of Raynaud's phenomenon depends on the severity of symptoms and may include:

  • Medications to relax the walls of blood vessels
  • Avoiding cold exposure and use of vibrating tools
  • Stopping smoking
  • Managing stress
  • Chemical injections, in severe cases
  • Surgery, in severe cases

Treatment of any underlying condition also is important.

Apr. 18, 2008