What is Raynaud’s Syndrome?

What is Raynaud's Syndrome - Jonas' Hands
The fingers on my left hand took on a white hue due to the cold on a casual hike. It was 66 degrees Fahrenheit, certainly not cold by most outdoors lovers’ standards. What is Raynaud’s syndrome? Well, it can look like this.


Being cold outside has kept me from enjoying the great outdoors for decades. It’s not just a winter-time thing, but a year-round cold that can lead to discomfort even at times when it’s in the mid-60s. The culprit: Raynaud’s Syndrome, sometimes referred to as “Raynaud’s disease.” What is Raynaud’s Syndrome, you ask? Here’s the skinny.

Though few people even know it exists, it’s estimated that 5-10% of the population suffers from Raynaud’s, a percentage that’s even higher in cold climates. For those doing the math at home, that equates to somewhere between 15.6 and 31.9 million people in the United States alone suffering from Raynaud’s. Where outdoor activities are concerned that’s a problem, because Raynaud’s is somewhat of a “silent killer” for outdoor adventure.

Raynaud’s is a circulation disorder that predominantly affects women, though it can also affect men (like yours truly). The syndrome causes one’s extremities to be particularly sensitive to the cold, sometimes to the point of pain. Unfortunately, many people — especially men — aren’t aware that Raynaud’s even exists, let alone that they have it. Groups like the Raynaud’s Association exist to help raise the disease’s public profile, but there’s a long way to go on that front. As a result, most people just chalk-up their symptoms to getting cold easily. But it’s not just because they’re wimps.

Raynaud’s syndrome is a biological disorder whereby small blood vessels in the extremities spasm and contract when arms, fingers, legs and toes are exposed to the cold. In extreme cases this can cause pain, with the most common effects being numbness and throbbing. Discoloration is also common, as the affected area turns from a normal flesh tone to white or blue. Occasionally the affected body parts can appear splotchy. For example, my kids often joke about “daddy getting polka-dotted” when my hands and arms turn white/blue and begin showing sunset-colored dots.

Hands and feet are generally the most easily and severely affected body parts, though the nose and ears can also be chilled within minutes of exposure. Although it takes mere minutes for symptoms to occur, it can take upwards of an hour for the affected area to actually warm up.

The Mayo Clinic recognizes two different kinds of Raynaud’s: Primary Raynaud’s and Secondary Raynaud’s. Primary Raynaud’s is the most common type, so it’s fortunate that it “only” causes discomfort and occasional pain rather than being truly debilitating. Secondary Raynaud’s is far more severe and rare, often occurring in tandem with other medical conditions including lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. According to the Mayo Clinic, “patients with the secondary form are more likely to suffer more serious problems from Raynaud’s, such as skin ulcers (which can cause serious long-term damage to the blood vessels), or even gangrene.”

What causes Raynaud’s? Is it contagious? Can you take medication for it? In order, the answers are “nobody really knows,” “no, it’s not,” and “no, you can’t.” Although research hasn’t confirmed it, Raynaud’s Syndrome shows signs of being hereditary. I, for one, suffer from it, as does my father, and my young daughter has shown early signs of being overly sensitive to the cold as well. I’ve talked to plenty of other people with Raynaud’s who also have family members who suffer from it. Raynaud’s isn’t exactly something one wants to inherit, but in the grand scheme of things Primary Raynaud’s is more of a frustrating and occasionally painful inconvenience than a truly crippling disorder.

For those who suffer from Raynaud’s, cold weather activities can prove quite prohibitive. After all, the great outdoors may beckon, but if it actually hurts to get out there, self-preservation can keep people indoors or at least near a heat source. Eating foods and beverages high in ginger can improve circulation and thus mitigate some symptoms. However, even ginger tea is no substitute for finding clothes and gear to help keep your extremities warm. And identifying and reviewing the best cold-weather clothes and gear for year-round use is why Cold Outdoorsman exists. Raynaud’s sufferers, I’ve got your back.

Jonas Allen

Jonas spent 17 years covering travel, technology and entertainment for regional and international media. He now writes about gear, clothes and tips to stay warm. He hopes his lessons will help other people who get cold (re)discover the great outdoors.

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