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Raynaud's phenomenon

What is Raynaud's phenomenon?

Raynaud's phenomenon - often shortened simply to Raynaud's - is a disorder of the small blood vessels in the extremities, which are over-sensitive to temperature changes and leave the patient with extreme coldness or heat in their fingers and toes (and sometimes ears and nose). The condition is named after Dr Maurice Raynaud, who identified it in 1862.

Raynaud's can be categorised as primary - which can strike anyone at any time, although it's most commonly identified between the ages of 20 and 30 - or secondary, when the disorder is associated with another underlying disease, usually an autoimmune condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or scleroderma.

It's estimated that there are as many as 10 million people in the UK who have Raynaud's. It's more common in women than in men, with around 10% of all UK women having the disorder.

What causes Raynaud's?

There's no definitive known cause of Raynaud's, although two blood-born viral infections, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, can trigger the condition in some people, and certain cancers can cause secondary Raynaud's.

What are the symptoms of Raynaud's?

Raynaud's comes in 'attacks', which can last from several minutes to a few hours. The symptoms usually appear in three stages, beginning with the affected extremities turning white from a restricted blood supply due to the small blood vessels constricting. In the next stage, the affected parts turn blue because of a lack of oxygen and this triggers coldness and numbness. Lastly, the affected extremities turn red as the blood rushes back in at a faster rate than normal, and this can cause tingling, heat and throbbing. Eventually, as the attack subsides, the extremities take on a normal appearance again.

How is Raynaud's diagnosed?

First of all your doctor will make a visual appraisal of your extremities and may also submit you to a cold-water or cold-air test to see if the symptoms appear as a result. You will be asked questions, such as your age when the symptoms first appeared, whether or not you have a lot of pain and whether the symptoms are limited to one side of your body only.

Primary Raynaud’s is typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 30. Secondary Raynaud’s is more likely if you are over 30 years of age before your symptoms appear, you experience severe pain during an attack, and your symptoms only affect one side of your body. Secondary Raynaud’s is often more complicated to diagnose and may require referral to a specialist. A simple blood test is often performed to check for underlying problems.

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