It’s been a yoyo week of weather, bouncing from seasonal cold to single digits to the fifties today. I’ve had Raynaud’s for so long that I barely notice the constantly changing cold sensations in my hands and feet⎯unless they go numb, of course.
But over the weekend, a friend asked me for some advice for her teenage daughter, who has developed the tell-tale signs of primary Raynaud’s (as opposed to secondary Raynaud’s, which, as the term suggests, is caused by another underlying condition such as scleroderma). When she is cold or stressed, her fingers turn purple, sometimes white and painful.
So this gave me pause as I reviewed for my friend what I’ve learned over the years. Given the crazy cold weather across the country, it’s worth repeating for those who may be new to the condition:
- Keep your torso warm. While your first thought may be to focus on your hands, if you protect your torso from the cold, your extremities will have access to better blood circulation. Layers are key, here, and the type of fiber matters. Which brings me to . . .
- Favor natural fibers for clothing. Cotton and wool both wick away moisture and allow skin to breathe. Polyester and other synthetics trap perspiration and can make you feel chilled. Silk is lightweight and has the dual advantage of keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer. I have a silk liner T-shirt that I’ve worn in extremely cold weather for decades; the investment pays off.
- Get mittens. They may not fit your fashion sense, but they definitely keep your hands warmer than gloves. Avoid synthetic fur liners. Look for insulated mittens that repel moisture. Some people favor battery-heated mittens, the kind you get at hunting stores, but I have never used them.
- Use wrist-warmers. My favorite brand is Wristies, affordable fleece warmers that come in all different colors, in various lengths, even with pockets for heat packs. I use them year-round, to keep my hands warm in winter and protect them from air conditioning in summer.
- Wear a hat. Just as keeping your torso warm helps your extremities, so does wearing a hat on cold days. This was one of the first tips I got from my rheumatologist. Recent studies place heat loss through your head at about seven to ten percent. It’s the common sense reason behind old fashioned nightcaps (which I don’t wear) and a good excuse for buying a nice hat (which I do).
- Wear properly fitted shoes. Pinched toes restrict circulation, which can exacerbate Raynaud’s vasoconstriction. I also look for shoes that breathe, which is why, even as I don’t eat meat, I prefer leather footwear for winter.
- Turn up the heat. This is a mortal sin for many hardy New Englanders, but I’m fortunate to be married to a local who accepts my need for a warm house and the associated expense (even as we strive to be environmentally responsible with attic insulation and good windows). As I said to my friend about her daughter, take her complaints seriously that the house is too cold. She’s not whining. It’s real.
- See your doctor. If your hands or feet are consistently numb and you’re experiencing persistent discomfort or pain, talk to your doctor. Protect breaks in the skin, as poor circulation can lead to ulcers that won’t heal and may get infected. There are a range of medications that can counter vasoconstriction, but you’ll need to experiment to see what works and if it’s worth it for you.