If your fingers turn white and start to hurt when you’re out in the cold, you may have a condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon. When your body temperature starts to drop, your brain sends signals along nerves to shut blood flow to your hands and the skin turns white. When the temperature drops to 59 degrees, your body tries to save your skin by opening the blood vessels and the skin turns red and starts to itch and burn. If you warm your hands at this point, your skin will not be damaged, but if you do not get out of the cold, the blood vessels in your hands can close and the temperature in your hands can drop to freezing, resulting in frostbite.
People who have Raynaud’s phenomenon have blood vessels in their hands that do not open when the skin temperature reaches 59 degrees. Several diseases, smoking and using vibrating equipment can cause Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Wear two or more layers of gloves and mittens. When your fingers feel cold, swing your arms very rapidly about your shoulder with your elbow straight. This will drive blood, like a centrifuge, into your fingers and warm them. The blood pressure drugs called calcium channel blockers, such as Nifidipine, can help to treat and prevent Raynaud’s phenomenon. Another option is nitroglycerin ointment that is used to treat angina. When applied to the forearm, it opens blood vessels leading to the hands. Check with your doctor to see if these prescription medications would be appropriate for you.
Rheumatology, November 2005
Lancet, 1999(November 13);354:1670-1675.
Murray Hamlett, M.D., Army Research Institute