For an estimated 5-10 percent of the population, the wintertime blues are more than a state of mind.
Cold weather triggers a painful and sometimes debilitating disorder for millions of Americans who suffer from Raynaud's disease (also known as Raynaud's syndrome or phenomenon). Raynaud's is an autoimmune disorder in which spasms in the blood vessels can interrupt blood flow to the fingers, toes, nose and ears. Exposure to cold triggers the spasms, typically causing the affected area to turn white, then blue, then bright red. Emotional stress can also cause an attack.
During an attack, Raynaud's sufferers experience tingling, swelling or painful throbbing. Episodes may last from minutes to hours. In severe cases, the area may develop ulcerations and infections, which -- if left untreated -- can potentially lead to gangrene.
According to the Raynaud's Association (www.raynauds.org), only one out of five sufferers seeks treatment. Both men and women suffer from Raynaud's, but women are nine times more likely to be affected. "Some researchers estimate as many as 20 percent of all women in their childbearing years have Raynaud's," says Lynn Wunderman, chair of the Raynaud's Association.
"Too many Raynaud's sufferers dismiss their symptoms as being due to 'poor circulation,'" Wunderman says. "In a sense that's true, but there's a medical cause for their poor circulation -- and sometimes it can be serious."
In some cases, Raynaud's symptoms may indicate a serious underlying disorder such as scleroderma, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Robert Riggs, CEO of the Scleroderma Foundation (www.scleroderma.org), notes that more than 90 percent of people diagnosed with systemic scleroderma also have Raynaud's. "In most of these cases, Raynaud's is the first symptom."
These patients are considered to have "secondary Raynaud's," meaning another associated disease is present. Fortunately, however, most Raynaud's sufferers have the more benign "primary" form. The Raynaud's Association and the Scleroderma Foundation advise individuals with symptoms to consult with their physicians, who can perform simple blood tests to determine whether or not antibodies associated with other diseases are present. Rheumatologists -- physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis, Raynaud's and diseases of the joints, muscles and bones -- may be consulted.
At this time there is no cure for Raynaud's, although research is underway. In the meantime, sufferers are advised to avoid cold temperatures as much as possible, effect lifestyle changes (skiing may not be advisable, for example) and protect the affected extremities with gloves, hats and other such measures. The Raynaud's Association website, (www.raynauds.org), maintains a product review section that covers everything from warming creams to microwaveable mittens.
"Obviously, winter presents the biggest challenges," says Wunderman. So, should Raynaud's sufferers move south for the winter? "Well," she concludes, "that might help somewhat, if you can avoid all of those frigid air conditioned places -- not an option for many sufferers in their daily lives."