Are your hands and feet cold all the time? That's a common complaint in people with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). In some case, it's just a symptom. In others, however, it could be due to a common overlapping condition called Raynaud's syndrome (also known as Raynaud's phenomenon).
What Is Raynaud's Syndrome?
Raynaud's syndrome is a condition in which the blood vessels constrict, causing inadequate blood flow. That leads to frequent cold in your extremities and makes it hard to warm them up. The most commonly affected body parts are the fingers and toes. But your lips, nose, ear lobes, knees and nipples may also be involved.
Raynaud's isn't all about the cold. The diminished blood flow can cause pain in the affected areas, and it may also cause the skin there to turn blue. Skin ulcers are possible, since prolonged episodes can damage tissue.
Some people have Raynaud's syndrome as a primary condition, meaning that it doesn't accompany another illness. In other people, it's a secondary condition, meaning that it wouldn't be present without the other illness.
We don't yet know what causes Raynaud's syndrome. Increased symptoms, called attacks, are often triggered by exposure to cold or high levels of stress. An attack may last for just a few minutes or could go on for hours.
Diagnosing Raynaud's Syndrome
A Raynaud's syndrome diagnosis is generally based on symptoms and a physical exam. However, your doctor may also order a cold stimulation test, in which heat sensors will record the temperature in your fingers before and after soaking them in cold water.
Your doctor may also obtain additional history and perform additional tests to look for causes of secondary Raynaud's syndrome. These are also tests that are common in the exclusion process for a diagnosis of FMS, and may be part of the ME/CFS diagnostic process depending on your symptoms. They include:
Treating/Managing Raynaud's SyndromeSeveral treatment and management strategies can help ease the symptoms of Raynaud's. The first line of defense is modifying your habits to help prevent symptoms. You can do this by:
- Not exposing your hands to cold or protecting them when you can't avoid exposure
- Not smoking
- Not wearing anything that constricts blood flow, including rings or tight socks
- Exercising to improve circulation
- Managing your stress
- Avoiding possible symptom triggers, including vibrations
When a Raynaud's attack occurs, you can help ease it by:
- Moving or massaging the affected parts
- Finding a warmer place
- Running warm (not hot!) water over the cold areas
Medical treatment options include:
- Drugs, such as alpha blockers, calcium channel blockers and vasodilators, which all affect blood vessels
- Injections of chemicals that block nerves in your hands or feet
- In rare cases, tissue damage can occur and may need to be surgically removed
Some alternative treatments, including biofeedback and supplementation with gingko or fish oil, have been recommended for treating Raynaud's. But a 2009 review of available research found that they did not make a significant difference.
Raynaud's in Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue SyndromeWe don't know exactly why Raynaud's is common in people with FMS and ME/CFS, but it's possible that they share underlying physiological properties. Raynaud's symptoms are caused by inadequate blood flow, and some research indicates impaired blood flow in FMS and ME/CFS.
Raynaud's symptoms may aggravate certain symptoms of FMS and ME/CFS, which often involve temperature sensitivity. Getting chilled can cause pain for someone with FMS/ME/CFS and may, in some cases, trigger a symptom flare. That makes it especially important to prevent Raynaud's symptoms in those patients.
While treatments for Raynaud's and FMS/ME/CFS are different, lifestyle changes such as not smoking, managing stress and gentle exercise (appropriate to your tolerance level) may help alleviate symptoms of all those conditions.
If you suspect you have Raynaud's syndrome, be sure to bring it up with your doctor so you can be properly diagnosed and treated.
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